Ace’s HIGH #59: Nobody Likes a Poser

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 #58: Back to Basics 

Ace’s HIGH #60 Coming June 16!->

–Last time, we talked about how you defeated Yuji Nagata to start your second reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. That same night, Hirooki Goto, who had just returned from excursion only two months earlier, defeated Hiroyoshi Tenzan, and called you out after the main event, leading to him challenging you in the same Ryogoku venue one month later on November 11, 2007. 

Tanahashi: Goto was really on fire at that point. There was a lot of hype behind him, and when we were in the preliminary tags all the way through the tour, he was getting these huge reactions. Here was me, the young guy that people felt didn’t represent ‘true’ New Japan Pro-Wrestling and trying to build something new, but Goto, even though he was my junior, had more of that old school flavour than I did. 

–Before the November 11 card was the G1 Tag League, where you teamed with Koji Kanemoto for the second year running. You beat Takashi Iizuka and Naofumi Yamamoto, Masahiro Chono and Akebono, Jado and Gedo, and Togi Makabe and Toru Yano. You lost to Goto and Milano Collection A.T., Yuji Nagata and Manabu Nakanishi, and the tag champions Giant Bernard and Travis Tomko. That meant you were one of four teams tied for the top at 4-3, meaning there was a mini tournament in Korakuen Hall on November 2. 

Tanahashi: I have pretty fond memories of the Bernard and Tomko match. It was out in the countryside, but it was a jam packed venue, which was rare for us at the time. I was still being booed pretty heavily, but Kanemoto was really popular, so there was an interesting dynamic to it all. 

–Kanemoto was certainly the face of the junior division at the time. We’ve talked before about how he kept his distance to the rest of the boys, but he seemed to have a special relationship with you. 

Tanahashi: We’re both real geeks for Ultraman, Kamen Rider, all that stuff. This was when ‘Kamen Rider Den-O’ was on TV all the time, so we would goof around riffing on the catchphrase two of the characters on that show had ‘We should let you know before we get started- we’re preeeettyy tough’ (laughs). 

–In the end, you beat Goto and Milano in the semi final of the Korakuen tournament, but lost to Tomko and Bernard in the finals, putting you one step off of the tournament for the second year in a row. 

Tanahashi: Two losses in a row to Bernard and Tomko… They were a great team, two big strong dudes, but Tomko had a few issues. 

–Tomko and NJPW severed ties in February 2008. He was scheduled for as tag title match for NJPW, and suddenly took on a second booking the night before, raising a lot of eyebrows. He and Bernard lost the title match the next night and that was the end of Tomko in New Japan. 

Tanahashi: He had all the tools, I think. A good track record in the tag division, obviously. It was a bit of a shame. 

–Goto had quite a scathing promo for you on the road to his title challenge, where he said ‘I can’t stand posers’.

Tanahashi: That was one that really had me thinking. It was the first time I was referred to as a ‘poser’, so believe it or not, it was the first time I saw that’s what I was behaving like. It was a bit of a revelation, like ‘OK, let’s lean into this’.

–You fired back that ‘this isn’t for show, I act like this at home as well’, and then told Goto that if he lost he should put in hair extenstions like you. 

Tanahashi: You know, I think that Goto was speaking for a lot of the fans, or even for the company at large when he delivered that line. The fans really got behind him for that, so it made sense to really lean into that even more and make it more of a focal point for us. So this was as flashy and poser-ish as I ever got, appearance wise. Extensions, carefully sculpted eyebrows, the works (laughs). 

–So you started to enjoy getting that heat a little bit? 

Tanahashi: I figured whether they were booing me or cheering me, the person eliciting the reaction was me. And when I put it out there, it got the reaction I wanted. I changed things up from the first reign, and it made for a better time with the belt. 

–It gave a natural dynamic to that match, and you’ve since long called it one of your best.

Tanahashi: Right. The crowd was pretty small, but they were really loud. For a pretty long time after that, there wasn’t another match that came close to that atmosphere, that dynamic of the old school newcomer and the champion who supposedly didn’t represent those old values.

–And you were both part of a new generation for NJPW.

Tanahashi: Goto was doing things that hadn’t been seen in NJPW up to that point, it had impact, taking stuff from mexico and applying it to his style. And he had really worked on his look, too.

–He got a lot bigger while he was away.

Tanahashi: You’d think if anything he might lose weight in Mexico (laughs). But anyway, at that point, the hype levels were off the charts for Goto. A lot of people thought that the Goto era was coming, and coming soon.

–You won the match with the Texas Cloverleaf, which was the first time you used that hold to get a big singles win.

Tanahashi: Right. He had got the knees up on the High Fly Flow, so the Cloverleaf was the plan B. I’d used the hold from time to time, but it wasn’t really a finisher of mine. 

–You were a fan of Kenta Kobashi growing up, was the Cloverleaf a tribute to him?

Tanahashi: Not really, I just wanted a finishing hold that could go after the legs. Usually the theme to my matches is to attack the legs to the point the other guy can’t stand or move, and then deliver the High Fly Flow while they’re down, but with the Cloverleaf I had the option to go straight to that.

–A bit like how Muto would use the Moonsault but also the Figure Four.

Tanahashi: Yeah, kind of. It was a way to broaden my matches a bit, and was a transitional move for me originally, but after the Goto match it became a finish. 

–You were very worn down after the match, and simply offered a ‘thank you’ in your in-ring interview. Not even the ‘I love you’.

Tanahashi: I laid out backstage as well and it took some time before I spoke. I remember quite a lot about that day. I was talking to (referee) Unno before and he said to me ‘it’s a light crowd, but this is where you have the kind of match that has people kicking themselves for not going to see it in person’. And Goto was seconded by Nakamura that night, since they were both in RISE at the time; rumour was that when Nakamura got to the back he said ‘man, I’m redundant’.

 –Even with the rival story the two of you had, Nakamura felt like he was the third wheel when you and Goto did their thing.

Tanahashi: It was one of those that reverberated with the fans and with the boys, I think. That match still has a big place in my heart 12 years on.