Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–Last time we talked about the first defence of your second IWGP reign, against Hirooki Goto in Ryogoku on November 11 2007. That same night, Shinsuke Nakamura returned to action tagging with Giant Bernard against Yuji Nagata and Manabu Nakanishi. Nakamura won that match and moved to challenge you next, but Togi Makabe intervened, leading to a number one contender’s match December 9 in Nagoya.
Tanahashi: The match I had with Taiyo Kea at Wrestle Kingdom 1 was the semi main, so January 4 2008 would be my first time with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the Tokyo Dome main event. Myself, Goto, Nakamura and Makabe were being called the four pillars of NJPW at the time.
–You were the standard bearers for the next generation after the Third Gen of Nagata and his contemporaries.
Tanahashi: It was an interesting period. It was a turning point for the company, and I had some important growth of my own. I really think it was here that I started to be able to read the situation around each of my matches and gameplan accordingly.
–So you made your own strides as a performer.
Tanahashi: Like, July 2005 when I was on the NOAH Tokyo Dome card against Takeshi Rikio, that was a case where I couldn’t, or didn’t read the room. I was an invader on someone else’s turf, but thought if I just did my best like normal, I would still get over. The match really suffered as a result. By the time of my second reign I was better at looking at the meaning of each match and the circumstances around it.
–So December 9 saw you wrestle Giant Bernard while Nakamura faced and beat Makabe. He challenged you at the end of the night, and the Wrestle Kingdom main event was set, Nakamura vs Tanahashi. A replay from the 2005 January 4 main, but this time for the IWGP Heavyweight title.
Tanahashi: I think that in those intervening three years, we both changed a lot, but I had changed more.
–That’s true. You were in your second reign as champion while Nakamura hadn’t been in the IWGP scene since he vacated in his first reign due to injury in 2004.
Tanahashi: My junior Nakamura rocketed ahead of me at the start of his career, but with me and him it was always tortoise and hare. I’d gotten ahead, but now the hare had realised he needed to start running again.
–It’s become a bit of a mannerism of yours, but this match was the first time we saw you skip down the Tokyo Dome ramp.
Tanahashi: It’s not very old school is it? Skipping down the ramp is a bit of a contrast to this idea of the gravity of the situation, the fighting spirit at the forefront, a steadfast walk to the ring. Part of that skip was that same flipping the bird to the people that said I wasn’t ‘New Japan enough’. I’m also of the opinion that your entrance should be a way to show at a glance what kind of wrestler you are. This made me stand out, let people know I’m not like the other wrestlers. It wasn’t just a case of messing around (laughs).
–There was some thought to it then! You were completely focused on Nakamura’s shoulder in this one.
Tanahashi: I used the same top rope Exploder Suplex that had put him on the shelf when Nagata used it. And I used a Tiger Suplex which was pretty rare for me.
–Nakamura used to use the Tiger Suplex quite a bit. You would use one another’s moves quite a lot during your rivalry.
Tanahashi: Yeah. That again is recognizing the situation behind a match, conveying that rivalry to the fans. This was different to the November match with Goto; I knew I wasn’t likely to be booed as heavily this time, and I structured the match differently to suit. With Nakamura, the stealing one another’s moves, all the way down to the nuts and bolts of the match itself, it was always new and fresh. The idea was every one of those matches would be compared to the others, so there was a pressure to outdo ourselves every time.
–And to be ‘that’ marquee match.
Tanahashi: Nakamura recently said that he thought every one of the matches he had with me were special, and I feel the same way. This time you had the element that Nakamura really had to go all out, there was a desperation to everything he did.
–Nakamura hadn’t gotten big results around that point in time so there were those questions about what would happen if he lost. In the end though, Nakamura won, using the top rope Landslide for the first time.
Tanahashi: That was a long way down! (laughs) Watching that footage back afterwards it took me aback a bit. There was no real way to take a safe bump off that.
–Fans can see the match on NJPW World, but it certainly looked painful.
Tanahashi: I remember hearing a woman scream when that move connected. Even just saying the name ‘top rope Landslide’, it sounds painful.
–Nakamura started his own second IWGP Heavyweight title reign with that win, and brought the record between the two of you to 3-2-1 in his favour.
Tanahashi: We were neck and neck up to that point. But I think it wasn’t just results with him, the fans hadn’t truly accepted Nakamura at this point. It was a case of the belt making him and not the other way around. With me, I was turning the corner at this point to where I was getting those boos or cheers on my own, whether I had the title or not.
–It wasn’t really until 2011 that Nakamura was able to tap into his charisma and swagger.
Tanahashi: Exactly. So I think I was more mature as an all round wrestler than him at this point.
–It was only a three month reign for you with the title, but was it significant?
Tanahashi: Yeah. I think it established me a lot more solidly. I had that great match with Goto, headlined the Dome with the title. There was a sense that we were putting together something new.
–You said after the match that you would ‘find a way to shine with or without the title’
Tanahashi: Yeah, well, part of that was putting a brave face on things, but I definitely did want to say that losing the title wasn’t the end of me by a long shot. Like I would shine with the title, but I wasn’t the kind of wrestler that needed the belt for me to be a focal point. I was a lot more confident.