Ace’s HIGH #56: A Just Defeat

Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!

<–Ace’s HIGH #55: Fighting for Wrestle Kingdom 

Ace’s HIGH #57 Coming May 26!->

–Last time we talked about the first Wrestle Kingdom and your match with Taiyo Kea on January 4 2007. You then went on to face Koji Kanemoto in February in Ryogoku. Kanemoto was a junior heavyweight, but all the same, factored into the top four in the prior year’s G1 and carried that junior heavyweight pride into an IWGP Heavyweight challenge. When asked why he was making the challenge, Kanemoto had simply said, ‘because Tanahashi’s the champion’

Tanahashi: You know, I think back then I was still figuring my way through this champion deal. It was still my first reign, there was still a lot of trial and error. But I think Kanemoto recognised that I was doing my best, and I think that moved him, in a way.

–2013 saw Prince Devitt challenge Kazuchika Okada. In 2020, Hiromu Takahashi challenged EVIL for the double IWGP titles, and El Desperado and Kota Ibushi faced off at Anniversary for the right to be the first IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. But this was the first challenge of its sort. 

Tanahashi: It was pretty historic, right? Of course, back in the day, you had Jyushin Thunder Liger facing Shinya Hashimoto, but the belt wasn’t on the line then. Even now, it’s rare to see a junior versus a heavyweight in a singles match, but back then, it was really unusual, not to mention with the title on the line.

–That’s really how popular Koji Kanemoto was at the time, and how capable he was as a wrestler.

Tanahashi: Right, and I think it helped that I was getting booed out of the building at this point. I think that this first reign really saw those third generation wrestlers get another lease on life in terms of their support. That probably played a role in the booking. 

–What do you remember of the match?

Tanahashi: The speed and the accuracy of those strikes of his were definitely something. Kanemoto had this real ability to make himself bigger than he actually was, purely through that fighting spirit, so to speak. So the more offense I had, the more he would fire up. 

–You broke out the open hand strikes, and you took Kanemoto’s Facewash in that match. Both Tetsuya Naito and Shinsuke Nakamura have said your open hand slaps are incredibly strong.

Tanahashi: That’s really a secret weapon of mine. I’ve used the left hand more lately, but I’m good at using both in combos. Obviously it isn’t like I’ve taken them myself, but they’re solid. A good shot to the jaw can have a real concussive effect.

–Didn’t you plan to show off the difference in size between the two of you for this match? You put in five kilos, and then got sick and lost the weight again.

Tanahashi: You couldn’t make it up! Well, my weight has always fluctuated, just look at what happened with me recently. (laughs)

–Your battles with the third generation continued on April 13 in Osaka. You faced New Japan Cup winner Yuji Nagata.

Tanahashi: Nagata was the most fired up of all the third gen at that point. Every building we went to, the Nagata chants were huge. To all the traditionalist fans that thought I didn’t represent NJPW, Nagata was ‘Mr. Strong Style’, so he was the guy they were looking to to beat me up and take the title. 

–Nagata said of that period that even though he had been dragged through the mud, the fans were still supporting him.

Tanahashi: I put on a brave face through the boos, but I was still asking myself ‘why won’t they realise how good I can be?’. I still couldn’t process the boos. But there was definitely a lot of hype for Nagata.

–After Nagata had his historic V10 championship run, he had a rough time of things. He was viewed as a stepping stone for yourself and Nakamura, and seemed somewhat lost. But the fans would get behind him, and that saw him through to the New Japan Cup, and then defeating you for his first championship reign in four years. It seemed like a real test of wills, and definitely a hard hitting match. What are your memories of it?

Tanahashi: It was a lot of fun. It didn’t have the up tempo, polished feel that recent main events might have, but it was this orthodox match that really showed off both of our emotions, and had the crowd completely drawn in. I found myself watching that match again recently and thought ‘ah yeah, that was a good one’.

–It was really intriguing to see the two of you pit your ground games against each other.

Tanahashi: Guys of Nagata’s generation always carry that mentality of trying to prove they’re clearly better than their opponent the whole time. That’s the old school way, the Three Musketeers were the same, (Keiji) Muto especially. I spoke with Nagata recently, and he was talking about how Muto would basically mount him and wouldn’t let him move at all. 

–In the end Nagata caught you with a left high kick and then the Backdrop Suplex for the pinfall win. There were actually chants for ‘New Japan’ throughout the match, a huge rarity for Japan. 

Tanahashi: It wasn’t just ‘Nagata’ but they were chanting for the match, and for the two of us. Thinking about it, this might have been the start of me coming out of that crowd heat and getting them on my side. The seeds being planted, so to speak. 

–You and Nagata was a real marquee match around this time.

Tanahashi: Right. I think there are three tentpoles that get fans invested in wrestling- team and factional battles, generational feuds and rival stories. I think there was a period where NJPW really got away from all three of those things. There was less a thought to a bigger picture story and really just a lot of matches made just to make matches. I think after I became champion we slowly started to have cards make more sense and have more meaning. I don’t want to say I was the reason for all that, but if I helped bring that about, then that’s a good thing.

–Unfortunately though, May 1’s Wrestle Land event in Korakuen saw you injure your right MCL in a three way with TARU and Manabu Nakanishi. 

Tanahashi: Truth is, I hurt it during the Nagata match. I went to an after party when the show was done, and when I got out of the taxi, I realised something was up. The MCL’s job is to help cushion the weight of the body above it, so when that’s hurt, man you know about it. In the end I had about half of the ligament removed. My MCL and my title in the span of a few weeks was a tough pill to swallow, heh.