Ace’s HIGH #62: Cocky Cup Winner

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 #61: Styles Make Fights

Ace’s HIGH #63 Coming July 7!->

–Last time we talked about how you entered 2008’s Champion Carnival for All Japan. Before that though, you had to go through the New Japan Cup to get a shot at the IWGP heavyweight Champion. 

Tanahashi: At this point the game plan for me was to do exactly the opposite of what the fans wanted to see; to completely turn away any kind of support. So I was winning a lot of matches with roll-ups, things like that. 

–Like your March 9 meeting with Hirooki Goto, a rematch from your title bout the prior November. Goto had the match won, and then you cradled him out of a Shoten attempt.

Tanahashi: I think looking back on that match it was a bit of a victim of the success the November match was. That was so good, it was hard to be motivated for a while afterward, it felt like this Herculean task to surpass it. 

–The second round was March 21 in Chiba. You had Ryusuke Taguchi in an openweight bout. Beforehand you talked about this being a ‘body explosion of sexy vs funky’. It was a very orthodox bout, but one Taguchi said afterward ‘showed a gap between the two of us. I wasn’t able to enjoy myself like I’d want to’

Tanahashi: Taguchi is an amazing wrestler, he can absolutely do everything, but he hadn’t quite nailed everything down at this point, in the pre-Coach era… Whatever that means (laughs). 

–He was quite an orthodox wrestler at the time for someone with the nickname ‘Funky Weapon’. 

Tanahashi: He didn’t have the funk he needed, heheh. I think like he said, he was lacking the fun aspect he’d get in later years.

–March 23 you had your semi final match with Togi Makabe. However much you were rejecting the fans, Makabe was the biggest heel in the company at the time. Opposite you though, he was suddenly getting cheers.

Tanahashi: It was a bit of an about face, but Makabe had really shot up in popularity as a heel. The journey that he’d undertaken, he was a sympathetic figure at the end of the day.

–And then in the middle of the match, Tomohiro Ishii ran in, and got a pop for it! Tomoaki Honma was booed for his runin though!

Tanahashi: Haha! These days Honma is a popular mainstream celebrity, but he was hated for a long time. But you know, it was because of that period that made these guys who they are today. The only thing I would say is that people always had Ishii’s back. I think he was just so unchanging whether he was a face or a heel, it really didn’t matter with him. He’s always been on that level above where he does all his acting in that ring. It’s the most physically demanding path to take, but it got him all this appreciation. 

–People get behind a pure fighter like Ishii.

Tanahashi: While I wasn’t getting that support from the fans, it was on me to do a lot of legwork to get my stance across, but with Ishii, he had no need for words. Just so straightforward.

–In the end you had Shinsuke Nakamura’s RISE partner Giant Bernard in the final. A favourite opponent of yours. 

Tanahashi: He might have been in a different faction, but he was a kind of partner of mine, in some respects. Matches with him were just such incredible pure pro-wrestling to my mind, it felt like we were really sharing this amazing chemistry every time we were in there. 

–You caught Bernard with a victory roll to win your first New Japan Cup in three years and challenge for Nakamura’s title, saying the belt was ‘calling out to (you)’.

Tanahashi: Definitely the motivation through the cup was to get that revenge over Nakamura, for sure. 

–That title match was set for Korakuen hall on march 30. The day before, you staged a New Japan Cup victory party, and declared that the next time you saw everyone, it would be when you won the IWGP heavyweight Championship. Quite egotistical words. 

Tanahashi: All according to plan (laughs). You know, some people were starting to get behind that kind of self absorbed comment, and great for them, and the people that hated it, so much the better.

–This was a Tokyo Dome main event program, and was the Tokyo Dome main event less than three months earlier, but here it was in Korakuen. 

Tanahashi: The logic in rebuilding was to start at home in Korakuen. This was the first time we’d wrestled one another there. 

–With the same match in such different venues, would you approach those situations differently?

Tanahashi: Hmm, you know, not radically. But one big difference is when you’re in the Dome, because of the scale of it all, the crowd reactions get to you in the ring a second late. Korakuen is easier because you have that instant feedback from the crowd. This was a good match, even though I lost. 

–You didn’t get those boos in Korakuen this time. It felt like the crowd was too invested in the match itself to give you trouble. 

Tanahashi: I think like you’d said this was a rare case to see a Dome level match in Korakuen Hall, so there was a different atmosphere, people not wanting to let a moment go to waste. 

–We saw a lot of counters from you in the match, with you rolling Nakamura up from a Landslide attempt, and from a cross arm breaker, but in the end Nakamura forced the submission.

 Tanahashi: I remember that finish. Being countered here, just like when Nakamura used a top rope Landslide at the Tokyo Dome instead of the normal version. He was outsmarting me. 

–It was another great match for the two of you.

Tanahashi: When you wrestle the same opponent multiple times, you start forming these sequences of moves and back and forth with one another. Even though the order might change, those callbacks would be there. With Okada that was definitely the case. But you couldn’t really say that with me and Nakamura. It was really fresh every single time. My offense hasn’t radically changed over the years, but Nakamura’s did. Those different phases of his career, from super rookie, to the inexperienced heel, to the King of Strong Style, he changed himself up completely, and that changed the flow of his matches. 

–He’d been wrestling you since the start, so you were in effect the litmus test for all of those changes. 

Tanahashi: Nobody has evolved over the course of his career like Shinsuke has, in my opinion. I mean, you even had 120kg power guy Nakamura in there at some point as well. In the end, I lost this match, but it fired me up if anything, and I was onto the Champion Carnival.