Ace’s HIGH #57: Grade One

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 #56: A just defeat 

Ace’s HIGH #58 Coming June 2!->

–Last time we discussed you losing the IWGP heavyweight Championship to Yuji Nagata. You then took just over two months off with a knee injury, coming back July 6 in Korakuen. You then headed into your sixth G1 that summer, and prepared by ceremoniously standing under the Shasui waterfall in Kanagawa.

Tanahashi: I did! Everyone remembers when Hirooki Goto did it, but I did it first! I’d never really had a good G1 up to this point, it was always a weakness of mine. So this was kind of a purification. Get that curse out of me, heh.

–You didn’t get off to the best of starts; you went to a 30 minute draw with Shinsuke Nakamura on August 5, and then a double count out with Toru Yano. But then you beat Milano Collection A.T. on August 8 in Yokohama, and beat Shiro Koshinaka. You lost to Manabu Nakanishi, but a 2-1-2 record was enough to put you into the semi-finals, in a time that system was still in place.

Tanahashi: I just made it! The Milano match definitely stayed with me. I had him down on the outside, and back then I’d get on the second rope and do a High Fly Flow to the floor. Not a cross body, the full version. I crashed down and sliced my elbow open, which had some bad consequences.

–What happened?

Tanahashi: I got the cut stitched up and carried on at the time, but after the G1 I went back to Gifu visit my family, and it got infected. I ended up with cellulitis and missed the end of August.

–Cellulitis can be pretty rough.

Tanahashi: Yeah. It swells up pretty bad, and it can be very serious if you leave it. I know Riki Choshu had a tough time dealing with it. I went to hospital and had an IV drip, it took a while to heal up. 

–Fans know and love Milano today in his role as an announcer but when he was active he presented a very different breed of technical wrestling. In your G1 match he wrapped you up in the ringside mats…

Tanahashi: He beat Toru Yano in his first block match by putting him in the Paradise Lock on the entrance way and winning by countout (laughs).

–Milano himself has said he expected to get all sorts of heat in the back for that finish, but Masahiro Chono loved it.

Tanahashi: Yeah. There were a lot of unspoken rules at the time, that a New Japan match has to be a certain way. That was just starting to change, and at the end of the day, the fans liking what they saw would validate all that. There was a little bit of resistance from some sections of the crowd, but I was there to take all that heat (laughs).

–Ever the heat magnet!

Tanahashi: With Milano, he was just a department store of moves. Not the biggest guy, but made up for that with all the different techniques he had. Plus he was a real pro. The environment in NJPW now, everybody has a distinct character to get behind. That wasn’t the case when he was coming out, walking an invisible dog, that whole deal. He really saw where things were headed, I think.

–A lot of today’s wrestlers use moves he innovated.

Tanahashi: And just visually he left an impression, with those long limbs. You can go back and watch his stuff now and it’s still great. If he was still active, he would fit just as well with LIJ as he would in some goofy unit with me and, I don’t know, Honma or something (laughs).

–In the semi-finals, you faced Togi Makabe. Makabe was runner-up in the New Japan Cup, so he was Yuji Nagata’s first challenger after he won the title from you. He’d had a hard start to his career but by this point he’d finally come into his own.

Tanahashi: You could tell he was frustrated in hontai. Guys like Nakamura or myself were getting chances, while he was being passed over. Even after he came back from excursion, there wasn’t really a spot for him to fit in. The Achilles injury was a bit of a turning point for him. 

–During the 2005 G1 against Nakamura. When he came back, he went through the indie promotion Apache, and tapped into a heel character.

Tanahashi: It was like he finally flipped a switch. You could see a change in his demeanour, in his resolve when he came back. He really used that time in Apache to relaunch himself and come back with a new kind of fire. He was my debut opponent, so a single match with him would always have a different energy to them.

–You beat Makabe in your semi final with a Victory Roll you were calling the Fall In Love.

Tanahashi: I gave it that name for the tour. It’s always been a kind of secret weapon for me. I beat Yoshihiro Takayama with it in ’04, and Lance Archer in ’19.

–And then Yuji Nagata in the finals. It was like a big redemption for you; you won with five Dragon Screws, a Straightjacket German, Dragon Suplex and then the High Fly Flow.

Tanahashi: Those Dragon Screws were a big part of that match, taking away Nagata’s kicks. I remember being at the 1995 G1 as a fan, when it was four days in Ryogoku. I was a huge Hiroyoshi Tenzan fan, and I remember fantasizing about him hitting ten Mountain Bombs in a row and just winning, heh. That kind of thinking stuck with me when it came to putting that match together. I thought to myself from a fan7s perspective, what they would think a guy in my position would do to win. I think it paid off. 

–How did it feel to finally pick up that G1 trophy?

Tanahashi: These days, the G1 final will sell out in a snap, even when there isn’t a card announced. Then though, we didn’t fill up the building. Throw in the boos I was getting, and it really felt like even after winning, the people wouldn’t be happy for me. That came through in my post-match promo.

–‘Thank you for supporting a piece of trash like me’. Not exactly brimming with happiness.

Tanahashi: Horrible thing to say, wasn’t it? A back handed thanks. When I won in 2015 and 2018, things were much happier, but not in 2007.

–But you went on to promise that you would be the spark to make pro-wrestling explode again, which became quite a famous line.

Tanahashi: That redeemed me, for sure! That line still gets used in video packages now. It was a bit of a tonal shift, right? You don’t normally go from calling yourself a piece of trash to saying you’re going to make the entire business blow up. But still, the line did its job (laughs).