Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–Let’s focus in on your first defence of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 2006, which was on October 9 in Ryogoku against G1 winner Hiroyoshi Tenzan. There were some quite biting exchanges in the war of words leading up to this one. Tenzen criticised you for not putting in results during the G1, saying you were a ‘weak champion’, while you responded that Tenzan had ‘weakened the entire image of the company’.
Tanahashi: Yeah, even if I do say so myself, that’s pretty harsh.
–Tenzan had been a four time champion up to that point, and lost it to wrestlers from outside the company three times, so that’s what the context to that comment was.
Tanahashi: Ahh, right. I think perhaps I was trying my best to position Tenzan as the babyface with comments like that. Tenzan was leading the way and working incredibly hard at the top while I was coming up, so that was less me being hateful toward him and more trying to come up with a situation for that match that would benefit it. You also had that idea of Tenzan being pretty much unbeatable in Ryogoku.
–You’re right, he was always quite the force there, and very popular. Of course, two years earlier, the G1 finals saw you and Tenzan face off there, and the crowd were entirely in Tenzan’s corner. This time though, you were able to overcome and beat Tenzan with the High Fly Flow.
Tanahashi: When we faced before, I wasn’t using the Slingblade yet, or the High Fly Flow. That meant I had a broader palette to paint from here, I think. But man, Tenzan- this was before he’s had any significant injuries- and he was so tough to break down.
–What are your thoughts on Tenzan compared to the other Third Generation wrestlers?
Tanahashi: He’s a very distinct sort. I think he and I have fairly similar ideas toward wrestling, especially compared to Nagata or Nakanishi. And away from the ring, you couldn’t find a nicer guy.
Tanahashi: It might be hard to believe, but when I was in college, I think the second or third year, our uni pro-wrestling club was actually able to book Tenzan to give an address for the university festival. He was a big heel at the time, and really gave it a ton of energy. I volunteered to pick him up and ferry him to and from the school.
–It was quite an eclectic crowd. Your senior in university, the future comedian and wrestler RG had organized the festival, and met his comedy partner HG at that event.
Tanahashi: I picked Tenzan up and got him in a taxi to the school. We ended up talking a lot on that taxi ride. The college was quite close to where he grew up, so we chatted about his upbringing, stuff like that. Quite a VIP experience as a fan. I remember he made fun of my hair though- I had a short bob at the time, and he said it looked like a wig (laughs).
Tanahashi: I remember getting the directions wrong to the taxi driver, and Tenzan going ‘hey, we’re nowhere near the place!’ Which had me panicked! In the end when I met him in the Dojo, I brought up that festival. That popped him!
–October 15 saw the start of the first G1 Tag League in three years. You teamed up with Koji Kanemoto, the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion at the time, to make a team of champions.
Tanahashi: We had a champion versus champion match in September in Osaka. Kanemoto was great at the time, and the idea of two champs tagging together was pretty cool. It was unusual- you don’t see heavyweights and juniors mix to make a team for World Tag League these days.
–You got off to a rough start, losing to Giant Bernard and Travis Tomko, before going to a draw with Tenzan and Jyushin Thunder Liger. But then you beat Toru Yano and Tomohiro Ishii, and then manabu Nakanishi and Naofumi Yamamoto. You tied for second in your block with Tenzan and Liger, with a playoff system in place. You beat that team, and then Takashi Iizuka and Yuji Nagata to make the finals, before finishing second after a loss to Masahiro Chono and Shinsuke Nakamura.
Tanahashi: We wrestled three matches that last night in Korakuen. But I wasn’t the only one going through the wringer- Nakamura had just come back from overseas, right?
–You’re right. After he lost to Brock Lesnar to start 2006, he went overseas to work on his conditioning and look. He came back on October 9, tagged with Chono in a win over Nakanishi and Riki Choshu, and went straight into the tag league.
Tanahashi: I saw right away, he was wearing shorter tights to show off his legs, and you could see how much bigger he’d gotten. This is hearsay, but apparently he was on a 10,000 calorie a day diet in the US. Four times what a normal adult eats, just to get that size. But he was going through a lot of trial and error at the time himself, figuring out who he was.
–How was it tagging with Kanemoto?
Tanahashi: For me, it was a breeze. Kanemoto had this real kamikaze approach to his matches, just throwing himself in and creating an opening. You know, his nickname at the time was ‘aniki’.
–Meaning ‘brother’, but it’s a term of respect in the mob world. So it has violent connotations.
Tanahashi: But that’s how he wrestled. Very forward, brute force. Shoot first, ask questions later.
–How was he away from the ring? There’s the feeling he was fairly stand-offish at the time, and he didn’t get along well with Riki Choshu when he had the book.
Tanahashi: Honestly, he wasn’t the easiest to get along with. I think he wanted to keep work and private life very separate, so he did his best to not spend time with the boys, it seemed. He wouldn’t ride the same bus with the boys, he’d travel with the ring crew and the truck instead. But on the other hand, he was always good to me, when I was coming up. He’d make a point of coming to chat with me, in that husky voice of his. I think before I started teaming with Kota Ibushi, there was always this sense that I didn’t match well with my tag partners, but looking back at what we had, I think that’s one team that could’ve stuck.