Shingo Takagi’s first interview as IWGP World Heavyweight Champion
June 7 saw Shingo Takagi emerge from a battle with Kazuchika Okada as the third IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. Yet as any champion will saw, the real work comes after taking the belt. Takagi now heads toward the Tokyo Dome July 25 and his first defence, against Kota Ibushi. Before the match was set last wee, we sat down with the Dragon to discuss his monumental achievement after a 17 year career.
I woke up in the morning and thought for a second it might have been a dream
–As we’re speaking, your post title match press conference has just ended. It’s been quite the reception.
Takagi: I got to the back after the match and just glanced at my phone. There were all these notifications on there, but I didn’t have time to look at it properly. By the time I woke up in the morning I had 226 LINE notifications.
–That’s quite a few!
Takagi: I like to think I had more notifications that day than anyone else.
–It’d take you a while to get back to all of them.
Takagi: Well there were plenty who never even texted me before. So there were a few cases of ‘who the hell is that guy?’, but it did hit home that it was big news to a lot of people. It made it real. To be honest, when I first woke up in the morning I thought for a second it might have been a dream.
Takagi: I didn’t sleep all that great, only about three hours. I was beaten up and still wired from the adrenaline at the same time, so I didn’t sleep until about 4, then woke up at 7 and saw my phone…
–…And all those messages.
Takagi: And the title was on the table in my hotel room, so it really hit home that this was real, I really did win that thing.
–You said this on Twitter, but most of the LIJ members had left by the time you got to the back.
Takagi: Right. Everyone had gone.
–Hiromu Takahashi was on colour commentary, so you did see him.
Takagi: That was the extent of it. I asked one of the staff, and they said after their matches, Naito BUSHI and SANADA just left. That’s our style really though, heh.
–But here you were at the top of the company, and they didn’t want to celebrate you?
Takagi: Apparently they gave it thought and decided against it. We aren’t the type to go drinking together or toast one another, anything like that.
–So 24 hours later, you haven’t spoken to Tetsuya Naito?
Takagi: Not yet, no. You know, before I challenged against Will Ospreay on May 4 we had a word or two before I made my entrance. That’s why I assumed he’d be watching, but I saw his column in Weekly Pro-Wrestling magazine and he said he felt too jealous to watch. I think that’s a lie though; he definitely watched…
–Did your parents reach out about the win?
Takagi: They did. I don’t think my dad was watching the match live or anything, but he always checks online for news when I have a big match, so as soon as he knew he sent me a message. My mum’s a little different, though. She does watch all my matches, but refuses to watch them in real time.
–Worried about her son.
Takagi: Yeah, so she won’t watch any matches without knowing the results first. It’s not like she has a bad heart or anything, but I’m not going to be the cause of any heart attacks, so that’s all fine by me.
Part of wearing it was to put pressure on Ospreay
–This is a question we ask every new champion- did you feel that something had changed when you held the belt for the first time?
Takagi: I don’t think it was a change of scenery, but it was a change in resolve. The real battle begins after the victory, kind of thing. I think the belt just strengthened my conviction. Like I’ve said, I will always wrestle the way Shingo Takagi wrestles. So this isn’t a goal, but a new start.
–This is an achievement that plenty of the best wrestlers in the world, for no lack of desire or trying, never make. To do it in two years and eight months is quite remarkable.
Takagi: I guess there are quite a few who challenge but never win it. But with the benefit of a little hindsight, luck played a big part for me. The timing of everything. Having Ospreay in the Best of the Super Jr. finals, both of us going heavyweight and meeting in the G1 last year, and then really building that rival story with him in the New Japan Cup finals. I’ll be honest, when I challenged in Fukuoka (at Dontaku) it was less about the title for me as it was about getting revenge on Will Ospreay.
–So, how did you feel when he had to vacate the title?
Takagi: There was a lot to process with it. That our match was that rigorous, that tough, that I pushed him to have to vacate. But then, the fact that even through all that pain he refused to lose; that’s incredible resolve. And then, the fact that I couldn’t beat a guy who was clearly that badly injured, that was a little crushing to be honest. But you can’t doubt the man’s heart.
–He’s called you an ‘interim champion’ since.
Takagi: I think there’s definitely part of me that knows I can’t really puff my chest out with pride and call myself the absolute best until he’s back and I’ve beaten him with the title on the line. But I also wanted to put that pressure on him. That’s why I knew the first thing I wanted to do as soon as I won the belt was wear it around my waist.
–That was the first thing you did, now you mention it.
Takagi: Ibushi was the first to hold that belt, but said he wouldn’t wear it until he beat Ospreay. Well he lost, and never wore it. Ospreay got hurt and returned it. So I wasn’t about to stand on ceremony. I wanted to wear it right away. First of all, belts are made to be worn in my opinion, but it was also about putting pressure on Ospreay. Sending that message that if he didn’t like what he saw, he should heal up and come fight me.
No false pride, this is the greatest achievement of my life
–You had always planned on winning the top title at some point in NJPW.
Takagi: At some point, absolutely, but the IWGP mark was something that needed some working toward.
–But you went through that work very quickly.
Takagi: Well, I am the age I am, and that’s part of it. I did think that if the chance came up I couldn’t wait around, and I had to move fast. In the end, it’s timing and luck. That isn’t just a wrestling thing, that’s life in general.
–It’s interesting to see your career progress here as you’ve come into the company in the middle of your career. Sometimes we’ve seen the AJ Styles and the Chris Jerichos of the world come in and immediately get the top star treatment, but you had to put the work in for a couple of years.
Takagi: Right. I think first of all, I was being called in by Naito into LIJ, it wasn’t a normal entry into NJPW. After what I’ve done, when Okada said before our match that we come from different worlds, he wasn’t wrong. I’ve tried to keep that rebellious mindset as a result.
–You had to be pretty ballsy to get where you want to be even as the big 4-0 approaches.
Takagi: Well, on the other hand, you can use a long career to your advantage in pro-wrestling like no other sports. I take my life straightforward, each year as it comes, and thanks to that I’ve been able to achieve things and use those years as a weapon to my arsenal.
–Have you ever thought about reaching your peak, or having already gotten there?
Takagi: Well, it’s a cop-out to see I’m always at my peak. But now that I have this belt, there’s no false pride in saying this isn’t just the peak of my career but of my whole life so far. But it isn’t downhill from here though.
–It’s certainly fair to call this the culmination of a lot of your efforts so far, especially with an uphill climb in NJPW.
Takagi: Oh, of course. i’m an outsider. I didn’t come from this system. So there’s something that rings false to me talking about how much I love New Japan Pro-Wrestling. But saying I love professional wrestling itself, that’s something you can’t deny. I do love pro-wrestling, I want pro-wrestling to succeed, to get bigger and to be a bigger force in the world, and NJPW is the best place to do that. So it all ties together.
I knew ‘Title Match Okada’ is a different beast
–Before the match, you praised New Japan, saying ‘well done on putting the match together’
Takagi: Right. Well, it all came from a bit of a shot in the dark.
–A shot in the dark?
Takagi: When we restarted after some of those events were cancelled, I happened to be in the main event in Nagoya. I figured that yeah, I lost to Ospreay so there might be a few negative comments, but screw it. If I won I was going to say something, put it out there in the universe. There was a little bit of desperation to it, perhaps, but putting it out there in the universe is important, right? But I figured after I made my case, there would be a lot of other guys doing the same.
–It was Okada that did.
Takagi: In the end, there was a lot more ‘wait and see’ than I’d expected. Just when I thought nobody would step forward, the biggest name did.
–You were talking about it being your time, but there were a lot of fans that felt it should be Okada’s again.
Takagi: Well that came from when me and Okada met in the first round of the New Japan Cup. I’d heard all of that talk from him, about winning the tournament, taking the title and making it his. I was saying ‘nope sorry, it’s Shingo’s time’.
–This was your third match with him, and the first title match.
Takagi: I knew that title match Okada is a different beat. I was super prepared, strategically, for it.
–You’d said you wanted to get the frantic Okada out of him.
Takagi: Right. He’s usually got that cool exterior, so I did want that raw emotion from him.
–And did you get it?
Takagi: I think I need to if I was going to beat him, and I think I did that. You saw it in him going for that Rainmaker, three or four times, desperately even. That’s not the Okada we’ve seen recently.
I don’t see myself as above Okada
–There certainly wasn’t any attempt to keep the Rainmaker in the drawer.
Takagi: You know, I’ve been thinking about facing Okada since before I even got to NJPW.
–You talked in the press conference about seeing him wrestle in the Tokyo Dome, and having a hypothetical gameplan against him for years.
Takagi: It was interesting watching that match as a wrestler, thinking about how I’d counter things. So for a while I was thinking I’d face him someday, and if I did, what I would do.
–That showed with the Rainmaker/Pumping Bomber counter.
Takagi: Look, straight up, the Rainmaker is a hell of a move. I’ve never been in a car accident, but you hear that talk, right? Time slowing for an instant. That’s the key between taking that move and countering it, survival or being in that accident. In the end, I’d gone over it so many times in my head that it was almost instinctual when it actually happened. That was the biggest key in the match. If I’d taken (the Rainmaker), that would’ve been it.
–We’ve seen different counters to the Rainmaker over the years, but it’s hard to imagine a more impactful counter. After the match, Okada chalked up his loss to a lack of time competing at the top flight of late, putting you at that top class in the process.
Takagi: He was saying that I had been wrestling right at the top while he hadn’t. But even though I’m two straight against him, I don’t see myself as above Okada.
Takagi: you have to remember he was coming off his illness, and probably had a little self doubt about what he could do in there. Like I said in the press conference I did get the sense he was breathing harder than normal in the first five or ten minutes, but maybe that was part of his plan as well. In the end I didn’t have the luxury of overthinking.
–That’s title match Okada for you.
Takagi: Right. Even as you wrestle him you’re aware of just how big of a deal he is. Even while I was trying to read everything he did, I still found him dictating the pace in parts of that match, which was really dangerous.
The title was elevated a little by me winning it
–There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship these last few months, but how do you feel about the title now you have it?
Takagi: I’ve said this before, but it isn’t about what you hold, it’s about who holds it. If there isn’t that colour to the belt yet, if there is still that sense that it’s not established yet, well I’ll establish it in my own image. If people can’t see the value in it, then I will create value in it to see. I think the very fact I beat Okada for this at Dominion, the title was elevated a little by my winning it. All I did was fight the way I always do, produce results and win. But the response that got, about what an achievement that was, it indicated to me that the prestige had been elevated, don’t you think?
–When Okada was named as your opponent, you made the point that all the media photos were of him and not you.
Takagi: Haha, that ticked me off a little. It was all about Okada making his way back to the IWGP title. And then ‘also in the match, Shingo Takagi.’ (laughs). So I really wanted to flip that script. Maybe it was a shock to the Okada fans, but I don’t think I left any room for doubt in the match. One thing I will say though- Okada’s going to be a force to be reckoned with going forward.
–Well that brings us back to the same theme- this isn’t the end but a new start.
Takagi: Crisis creates opportunity, but the reverse is true as well. I have a huge opportunity in the form of this title, but a ton of pressure of being the guy that never did anything with the title. There’s a ton of risk that goes with the rewards and the possibilities. It’s all high risk, high return.
–That said, what kind of champion do you envisage yourself as?
Takagi: I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I don’t have an easy answer for you. things are still all chaotic, pardon the pun. No matter how hard we bust our asses, we only get applause, no cheers. That’s a real tough situation for us as wrestlers. But at the same time, I hear those chants, those cheers still, subconsciously. So I want to have the kind of matches and be the kind of champion that can tear it up despite, or even because of the current era.
–You’re hearing those chants as you wrestle?
Takagi: We’re steadily getting there, and I really feel that pretty soon we’re set to really blow up. But even though we’re having to suppress ourselves a little bit and grin and bear it, I’m still having a blast. That’s why, whether it’s Korakuen, Osaka Jo, or the Tokyo Dome, I’m putting more of myself out there than anyone else, yelling louder than anyone else, and delivering a clear message to everyone watching. That’s what I want to do. I want to express.
–One thing people have said online is that you’ve been the MVP of wrestling in the COVID era.
Takagi: The worst thing for us to do would be to hang our heads and be resigned to anything. It’s important to hold our heads high and fire it up now more than ever.