Will Ospreay speaks on Dontaku’s bout with Shingo Takagi
Tuesday May 4 marks one month to the day since Will Ospreay became IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, and his first defence against someone with whom he’s cultivated a modern classic rivalry with in Shingo Takagi. With time running out before Dontaku in Fukuoka’s International Center, we got Ospreay’s thoughts on his status as world champion, and Tuesday’s big main event.
Now I have to do what it takes to stay on top of this mountain
–So it’s been a couple of weeks since you won the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. Are you used to the label ‘World Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay’?
Ospreay: It sits with me. It sits well with me. It’s all about the journey. Years ago I saw what was then the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on a guy I admired in AJ Styles, and he said to me ‘if you want this, you’ve got to come to Japan’.
–And years on you did.
Ospreay: I had a lot of doubters, and I’ve proven them all wrong. It’s deserved, it’s earned, and the prophecy has been revealed.
–When we spoke in December you said that you were ‘sold a dream’ as a professional wrestler. Now you’re living that dream, of being the top guy.
Ospreay: I feel like there’s two sides to me. Half of me is that 14 year old boy with stars in their eyes. The other half is the 27 year old man who’s all business. I don’t have friends or brothers except the United Empire. Everyone else is trying to take food off of my table and I’ll walk over anybody to stop that. It isn’t a dream, it’s reality, and I have to do all it takes to stay at the top of this mountain.
I don’t break rules, I just use them to the fullest
–Let’s talk about the match with Kota Ibushi at Sakura Genesis. If it was a case of analysing whose match it was offensively, it definitely seemed more like a Will Ospreay match than a Kota Ibushi match.
Ospreay: I saw people online who analysed that footage and broke down the stats. They said that I was 70% on offense in that match with Ibushi at 30%. That shocked a lot of people because that match was so important to him in terms of his legacy.
–Do you think he took you too lightly?
Ospreay: I met Ibushi in 2015, and we had a bond then. I think he saw me as a younger version of himself, but that guy he met then wasn’t the same person that was in the ring with him in Ryogoku.
–When we talked before you made it very clear that you would do everything within the rules to go after Ibushi, and that was the case. There were a lot of blows to the back of Ibushi’s head that proved to be his undoing.
Ospreay: If I see an opportunity to do damage and incapacitate someone to the point they can’t stand, I’ll take that. I can do a downward strike in pro-wrestling. If this was MMA I couldn’t do 12-6 elbows on a downed opponent, or knee strikes to a downed opponent, or blows to the back of the head.
–Pro-wrestling doesn’t have those limits.
Ospreay: Exactly, and I build my offense around that. Look at my hook kick. (Naomichi) Marufuji used it originally, but it’s a kick that comes around the back of the head, you don’t know where it’s coming from until it catches you in the face. The Chelsea Grin, the Hidden Blade, both are blows to the back of the head and both are allowed in pro-wrestling.
–The rules allow that kind of offense, but there’s a bit of a taboo around them, wouldn’t you say? That there might be unwritten gentleman’s agreements not to use that kind of offense.
Ospreay: Gentleman’s agreements mean nothing. I’m more daring than that, I don’t mind people seeing me wear the black hat; I might as well lean into it. I might pull someone’s hair if the opportunity arises, but I don’t break many or any rules. I just use them to the fullest.
–One aspect of working within the rules is the fact that the United Empire have been at ringside with you these last two big matches. Some are conditioned to expect interference, but to your credit, there’s been none.
Ospreay: I enjoy having them there. You see a lot of shenanigans from seconds in New Japan. But I’m different. I don’t need Jeff Cobb and Aaron Henare to help me win a singles match. We work together in tags of course, and we’re training hard together to help improve there. But I never need help in singles matches. Did I have anybody interfere in my matches when I was a junior heavyweight?
Ospreay: But when they’re out with me, it’s another set of eyes. O-Khan might give advice from the corner, tell me to switch stances, that kind of thing. And if it gets in my opponent’s head, to have my guys draw their focus away from me and throw them of mentally then so be it.
Ibushi’s right- this is a heavy title
–Kota Ibushi said that when he first held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, he felt the weight, both literally and metaphorically, of that title. The first top championship win is a major deal. Did you feel it changed you at all, to hold that title for the first time, and to wear it?
Ospreay: It’s made me more… Obsessed maybe? I’ve wanted this for longer than I remember. Maybe some people might not agree that I should be in this position, but it’s the culmination of the journey I’ve taken. Ibushi’s right, it is heavy. Now I’m looked upon as a history maker in the new age. I’m the first British holder of an IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and the first non-Japanese to ever hold the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. So I’m responsible for setting a standard and ushering in this new era. I’m ready for that responsibility.
–The first non-Japanese holder of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was the late great Vader. The two of you have history together; when you first appeared in NJPW he was very critical of you, which led to the two of you wrestling in England.
Ospreay: I didn’t even think about that… I guess we have more in common than I imagined.
–To go back to the Ibushi match, a key turning point was when Ibushi tried to lawn dart you into the corner. He picked you up but buckled under the weight, and after that, didn’t find his way back into the match fully. There again was the literal and the metaphoric weight, it was a symbolic moment.
Ospreay: When he caught me it was like his body gave up. He always said he won’t give up at that point I think, even if it wasn’t consciously. I know how that feels, but I won’t do the same thing.
–We often see, with Tetsuya Naito, Jay White, EVIL and so on that the first top championship reign is very short. Are you conscious of that track record? Do you feel pressure in that regard?
Ospreay: Kind of, yes. But I’m not willing to accept defeat. It sounds like a cliché at this point, but I’ve said it again and again. I am on another level. I am fully comfortable in my in-ring style. I’m dying to show people how ready I am to take on the world as the champion.
Henare will be a champion
–Before the main event at Sakura Genesis, Aaron Henare joined the United Empire. Between Henare’s Muay Thai backbone, Cobb as an amateur wrestler, O-Khan as a mixed martial artist and yourself as more of a typical pro-wrestler and street fighter, you have a range of fighting backgrounds, and you’re a formidable team. Henare said that United Empire is the ‘bad mother***ker group’.
Ospreay: Definitely. I’ve never formerly trained in any martial arts. I’ve had tips here and there and learned to fight outside the ring as well as in pro-wrestling. But now when we train together, we train in one another’s fight styles and those different backgrounds can really unite us. But more than that, our identity is that we’re guys that bent over backwards for this company and now we’re taking what’s ours.
–You’re linked by ideology, not just in ring approaches.
Ospreay: I put things together with O-Khan in England. Jeff Cobb saw what was going on and wanted to be a part of the bigger picture. Then Henare… Henare broke after that Jay White match in the New Japan Cup. You saw his backstage comments.
–It wasn’t made public, but Henare punched through a partition backstage in frustration.
Ospreay: I was there. I was walking backstage and saw that happen. Saw him give his comment while his hand was leaking blood. Just emotionally breaking down, so frustrated. I asked him, how long are you willing to put yourself through that punishment? When are you going to go out there and be the mean, tough guy I know he is? I know Henare. The guy that was in the ring up to now wasn’t Henare. Now he’s on the right path. He’ll be a champion one day.
The initials IWGP on a British heavyweight Championship would mean a lot
–When you’re a champion, especially for the first time, it’s almost like being in a political campaign. People want to know what kind of a champion you’ll be, and when you first come into power, what direction you’ll take. The post match press conference seemed to be really important for you to lay out your platform.
Ospreay: I’m very goal oriented. I wanted to lay out my goals, and there were so many questions that needed to be answered. The British Heavyweight Championship for one.
–You’ve held that title since Valentine’s Day 2020, but it’s difficult to compete in the UK at the moment.
Ospreay: RevPro understands that, Andy (president Quildan) understands that. But I want to raise the stakes and bring more history to that title. The initials IWGP on a British Heavyweight Championship would mean a lot. There’s history between the two countries when it comes to Billy Robinson, Dynamite Kid, all those guys that inform the style here. So I’m passionate and proud of my British background and that’s a suggestion that I made in all seriousness. Same when I talked about STARDOM; I’m a huge supporter of women’s wrestling and if I can get United Empire some presence there and bring more eyes to them, that would be incredibly exciting. As for talking about champions in other companies, or ex-wrestlers who might want a shot, who knows? But I had the platform to state my case with that press conference, and it would have been a waste if I didn’t use it.
There’s no bigger match than Okada, but my mind is 100% on Takagi
–May 4, you face Shingo Takagi in Fukuoka on night two of Dontaku.
–After you won the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, you immediately called out Kazuchika Okada, but it was Shingo who wanted the next shot.
Ospreay: As far as Okada goes, he’s in the main event at the Tokyo Dome, right?
–May 29 at Wrestle Grand Slam, he’ll challenge whomever the champion may be.
Ospreay: It’s about coming full circle. He stopped me in the Tokyo Dome. Stopped the United Empire’s momentum.
–With you losing to Okada, Jeff Cobb losing to Shingo Takagi and Great-O-Khan to Hiroshi Tanahashi, United Empire lost all three of their singles matches at Wrestle Kingdom.
Ospreay: I’ll be honest, I haven’t slept well since. I’ve watched that match over and over again, and I don’t know where I went wrong. He was just better that night. But I’ve grown, become champion, and now I call the shots. So I want Okada, and I want him at the Tokyo Dome.
–But Shingo is first.
Ospreay: And I get his point. He did beat Okada in the New Japan Cup. And historically we’ve seen the Cup runner up eventually challenge.
–In 2019, cup winner SANADA challenged Okada at Dontaku, in 2018, Hiroshi Tanahashi did, 2017 Bad Luck Fale did. So it’s been somewhat of a Dontaku pattern.
Ospreay: And I can’t deny, he made some good points, and now we have this situation where me and Shingo face each other first and the winner gets Okada.
–Whoever emerges from Dontaku as World Heavyweight Champion though, whether it’s yourself or Takagi would be facing Kazuchika Okada in their first ever Tokyo Dome main event.
Ospreay: That’s right.
–The last individual to ever win a Tokyo Dome main event on their first try was Brock Lesnar, all the way back in October 2005. That’s a unique kind of pressure.
Ospreay: He was the last non-Japanese to win a Tokyo Dome main event, too.
–Kenny Omega lost in two Tokyo Dome main events, and Jay White lost on January 5 2021. If you make it to Wrestle Grand Slam, what makes you different?
Ospreay: I don’t like saying the truth sometimes, because the truth hurts. But sometimes it’s the best thing to do. The truth is, I am a level above every single person that’s ever been here before. Nobody can do the things I can do, and nobody can offer what I have to offer. Now, I can’t say, can’t 100% promise I will walk into the main event and beat Okada.
–The statistics are against you.
Ospreay: The history with Okada is against me. I only beat him once, and that was the one and only time I needed help to win a match. If, when I beat Shingo, Tokyo Dome is May 29. It’ll be my third big singles match in under two months, and Okada has had a lot of rest.
–He isn’t wrestling on the current tour until May 3 and 4.
Ospreay: There are little rumours on the grapevine that he’s carrying a lot of injuries. I’m probably 70% now, let alone the damage I’ll take against Shingo. But I want that. I want him at 100%, and I want to make it clear that I can beat him at 100%. I need to do that.
–It’s a strange situation, to have non-champion Okada being in that main event spot and awaiting the winner of a championship match.
Ospreay: I get that the challenger should be busting their butt to get into that main event spot in the Tokyo Dome, like how it’s been the winner of the G1 at Wrestle Kingdom. But the fact is, he’s busted his butt for ten years now. He made the last IWGP Heavyweight Championship such an iconic title, and it has to be him.
–He’s earned that ‘final boss’ status in your mind?
Ospreay: He has. There’s no bigger match than me and Okada, but that isn’t to say my mind is off Shingo Takagi. It’s 100 percent on Shingo right now. It needs to be.
–You aren’t looking past Takagi.
Ospreay: If you look at Shingo all the way through the New Japan Cup, he was calling Kota Ibushi out after every single match. Even during the final he was going outside and talking to him! His focus wasn’t where it needed to be, and that’s why he lost. That’s why I had the advantage against him.
–Takagi now seems completely focused on you, judging by his actions in the tag team matches lately.
Ospreay: The tour opener at Yokohama, I’ll admit it; I took my eye off the ball. I paid for that. He threw me off that apron, right onto my tailbone. Because I’ve beaten Shingo twice already, I was focused on walking through him to Okada, and I lost. So now, Okada doesn’t exist. I have to focus everything I have on Shingo.
–At the New Japan Cup final, you were both coming into the match banged up. Shingo has talked about lower back issues that were limiting his mobility and offense. In these interactions you’ve had during the preliminary matches, have you been able to feel him out andget a gauge of where he is physically?
Ospreay: Now you mention it, I remember a lot of points from that final where he wasn’t moving like he usually would. He was more predictable, I could see what he was going to do aout two or three steps before maybe he even knew. There wasn’t a spring in his step, and those injuries won’t be 100% healed. But it’s the same for me. I still can’t breathe quite right in one side of my nose, and my shoulder still isn’t quite right. But there’s been something else on these Road to cards.
In Fukuoka I have to go for the kill
Ospreay: It’s a fire, with him. Pardon the Dragon pun, but he wants this win I think more than in any of the other matches we’ve had together. But then, I’m not afraid of fire at all, not mythical beasts either. I look forward to seeing him get burned out, heh.
–This will be the fourth time you faced off. From Best of the Super Jr. on June 5 2019, you would have faced off nine months later in New Japan Cup 2020, but when the pandemic affected that, it was Kobe during the G1, so over a year between meetings.
–Then, G1 to New Japan Cup 2021, six months apart. Now, match number four is only six weeks after match number 3. What do you think will be different at Dontaku compared to Sendai?
Ospreay: I think we’ll be fresher in a sense. These tag matches we’re having can allow us to touch out and rely on our partners, while I get more of an idea of strategy.
–That’s a big aspect. The other times you’ve met it’s been in tournaments, so this is the first time that you’re facing one another with preliminary tag matches building through the tour, instead of in a series of singles matches.
Ospreay: All these tag matches are very important, but they also give room to experiment. Yes the results matter, but it’s pride and attention in the end, not for the big prize in the singles matches. In Fukuoka I have to go for the kill, now it’s about making a game plan. I’m definitely looking forward to executing that gameplan in front of a sold out crowd. Should I mention that the event sold out less than 24 hours after the main event was announced?
–Night two of Dontaku did indeed sell out quite quickly.
Ospreay: All because Will Ospreay is the biggest draw in NJPW right now. Understandable.