Ace’s HIGH #64: All Ace Carnival

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 #63: Away Game

Ace’s HIGH #65 Coming July 21!->

–So, let’s continue our look bac at the 2008 Champion Carnival. After beating Taiyo Kea and going to a 30 minute draw with Keiji Muto, you wrestled Toshiaki Kawada in a singles match for the first time. 

Tanahashi: One and only, for that matter. 

–One of the Four Pillars along with Akira Taue, Mistuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi, he really was ‘Mr. All Japan’ at this point. 

Tanahashi: Absolutely. Looking back, it was a really important experience. After Muto, this was two 30 minute draws back to back, a really draining experience. 

–Two very experienced wrestlers, but very different approaches. 

Tanahashi: That’s a real challenge, but there’s a lot of fun to it. This match didn’t really flow the way I’d envisioned beforehand, and I think a big reason was my age. 

–Your age?

Tanahashi: Well age, and experience. Going into this carnival I was so caught up in getting past Muto, and making a foundation for myself based on that. That meant I really didn’t give much thought to Kawada. Some of it was a compatibility thing as well though. Like if it was Ishii and Kawada… That’s an all time dream match that just popped in my head…

–Ishii always has great matches with Kawada’s student Taichi.

Tanahashi: Taichi and Kawada are completely different wrestlers, but Taichi really carries his roots and that All Japan-ism with him really well. Anyway, with this match, the key was missing a High Fly Flow and jamming my leg. 

–That was the turning point. 

Tanahashi: I don’t know what their ring is like now, but back then, their ring was different to ours in New Japan. We have a spring in the middle to take some of that impact, while AJPW didn’t; they had a thicker mat instead. When I smacked into that mat I sprained my quad. I thought I’d done in a ligament when I first hit, but it was the muscle. That really made for a tough time. 

–The next night you were set to face Satoshi Kojima, and depending on the result, move to the finals. That’s not a great time to pick up an injury. 

Tanahashi: My leg hurt like hell, and I couldn’t properly bend at the knee. I remember I was taking the stairs super gingerly; Kaz Hayashi saw me and was like ‘there’s no way you can go, surely?’

–So it was pretty touch and go. 

Tanahashi: And things were really tough in the Kojima match, physically and mentally. 

–So how did you get through?

Tanahashi: Painkillers and a prayer, really. I was still hurting, but I had to be the standard bearer for NJPW in the flagship tournament of another company. I needed results more than anything. 

–With Kojima there was the added factor of wrestling a Third Generation member. You used Yuji Nagata’s armbar in this match, rolling back the eyes and everything…

Tanahashi: I might be suffering, but I can still bring a bit of spice (laughs). Kojima was really at his peak at this point in time, and I think that provoked me to stir things up more. Kojima was a former NJPW guy at this point, but he was flying the flag for AJPW, and there was that pride there. This might have been a more violent match than the Kawada one, I think.

–So you ended up facing Suwama in the final. Suwama’s theme through B Block was ‘stop the Tana’, and he really brought the home team pride to you.

Tanahashi: The crowd were going crazy with Suwama chants from the get go. When I heard that, it was like ‘that’s why I’m here. To provoke that reaction’.

–The model invading heel.

Tanahashi: It really was one of those reminders of what the business is all about to me. I’d really been on a roller coaster through those five days, and even though this was my second match of the night, I wasn’t wanting for motivation. Plus me and Suqama are the same age, so that was a factor.

–Suwama had really exploded on the scene as a rookie in 2004, a huge guy with a lot of power and an impressive amateur record. What was it like wrestling him?

Tanahashi: I popped him with a palm strike at the start, and he gave me my receipt with a good deal of interest. The Last Ride at the end of the match knocked the stuffing out of me; knocked the consciousness out of me for a second too.

–And you were trying to sneak your way past that power. 

Tanahashi: Right. He was a straight ahead kind of guy, so I had to zigzag a little. But man, he was powerful.

–You lost in the finals, but had a tournament MVP worthy performance. Another aspect of it all was your interactions with the iconic referee Shohei Wada.

Tanahashi: He’s such a famous emblem, and there’s such a trust between him and the audience, that there would be calls of ‘Shohei’ from the crowd when his name was announced. I thought I could have some fun with that. And there was more of a NJPW vs AJPW flavour back then, so there were a fair few New Japan fans coming to the matches. It all added to the partisan nature. 

–In the final match with Suwama, there were chants of ‘All Japan’, which proved that your work had paid off to bring the AJPW fans solidly against you.

Tanahashi: The result didn’t go my way, but it was absolutely worth my while. The damage I took with me back to New Japan meant I had to miss some matches there. But the benefits were well worth the price. It was a real case of no pain, no gain.

–Certainly you could make a very convincing argument that yours was the best match on each of those cards. 

Tanahashi: And from here, there was a change in the kind of heat I was getting. It wasn’t a ‘go away’ thing, it was a reaction that I was getting from the fans. They were boos I was expecting, that I was working for. 

–You got a lot from a short five day period in other words. 

 Tanahashi: It was a phenomenal experience. It could well be that if I hadn’t been in that tournament, I wouldn’t be the wrestler I am today. That’s how important it was. I really should watch those matches back; I’m sure if I did I would discover something new.