All (Golden) Star Game: Kota Ibushi’s Grand Slam Challenge 【WGS】

Kota Ibushi discusses the Tokyo Dome main event July 25


Kota Ibushi may not be the current IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, but Wrestle Grand Slam sees him add yet another accomplishment to his list of recent accolades. The back to back G1 winner and threepeat finalist is heading into his fourth out of the last five Tokyo Dome main events, which easily sets him on the level of Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi in terms of frequency in the stadium, in a much faster time frame. 

Yet his challenge on July 25 may be the toughest yet- to overcome a champion and contemporary in the midst of one of the hottest years competitively of any wrestler in NJPW history. Can Ibushi beat Shingo Takagi? We sat down with him to discuss why he feels he can. 

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I have the experience edge

–So, does this Tokyo Dome card feel different to head into compared to January 4 & 5?

Ibushi: Hmm, well, I was on January 4 & 5 last year, and both main events this year. 

–Quite the achievement.

Ibushi: So I think when it comes to me and Shingo, I have the experience edge.

–This is Takagi’s first Dome main event, and that presents quite a tall task.

Ibushi: How the sound reverberates round is very different, especially now fans can’t raise their voices. I’ve main event experience in that environment too. Add the G1 Climax wins, and I think I’m better equipped in a big match setting, reading the room and the situation. 

Starting my 18th year, the Olympics kicking off- it’s the best timing for me

–So how does it feel to be challenging for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship in the Tokyo Dome?

Ibushi: Well, first of all, this event did get delayed from May. So in some parallel universe, I’m not in the main event at all.

–Originally Wrestle Grand Slam was set for May 25 with Kazuchika Okada vs Will Ospreay at the top of the card. 

Ibushi: Ospreay got hurt, turned over the belt, and then Shingo Takagi beat Okada…What if the original card wasn’t postponed? It’s a real scenario of the stars aligning for me. The Olympics are starting, I’ve just started my 18th year in the business, it’s the best possible timing in my book. 

–You’re set for a big showing on a global stage.

Ibushi: In my book, this is the main event. We’re beating the Olympics. I’m not anti-Olympic or anything, but I think we can ride that wave. As everyone’s looking at the Olympics in Tokyo, we’re able to say ‘pro-wrestling is happening, too’ and take some of that focus, bring new fans in. It’s an opportunity.

–You’re always talking about broadening professional wrestling.

Ibushi: Exactly. That’s what makes this exciting to me.

–It’s a big chance.

Ibushi: We don’t have the whole world converging on Tokyo in person. We don’t have anybody in the Olympic venues. But we can show pro-wrestling to all those people, and have some of them fall in love with it.

We’re completely different. But we’re both easy to get


–And your opponent will be Shingo Takagi. 

Ibushi: That’s another big factor. See, Takagi is easy to ‘get’. 

–Easy to understand? 

Ibushi: Wrestling wise, anyone can understand Shingo. He hits you, throws you, gets fired up, has a ton of energy. Whoever watches wrestling can get Shingo’s deal right away. Me, I might be more acrobatic, go for the spectacle a bit more; we’re very different in terms of style, but we’re both really easy to understand. So this is a real chance to broaden our specific style of wrestling. 

–So you’re all set up for a great match.

Ibushi: I think it can’t be complete coincidence that everything’s lined up like this. I mean, the last time Tokyo had a summer Olympics was 57 years ago… so what, next time will be… Well, if I’m living till 150 I’ll be still around, so when we run the next Olympics in Tokyo, I want to main event in the Tokyo Dome, heheh.

 He and I share a connection nobody else does


–So, what does Shingo mean to you as an opponent?

Ibushi: We’re both the same age, and both got into the business in 2004. I think he and I share a connection nobody else does.

–Tetsuya Naito is in the same mix, and the same age as the two of you, but debuted a little later in 2006.

Ibushi: Right. There’s a lot of wrestlers the same age as me, but none with such similar career paths.

–When Shingo first came to NJPW in 2018, he said that he was gunning for you most of all.

Ibushi: I wonder how much he meant that, but it was kind of a strange thing to say at that time, with Naito, Okada, those guys at the top.

–Perhaps because of that similar career trajectory.

Ibushi: Perhaps.

–The stars have aligned for Takagi, too. He lost to Will Ospreay in the new Japan Cup, and in his world title challenge in Fukuoka May 4, but he’s been able to bounce back. 

Ibushi: Yeah, but that whole scenario gives me some uncomfortable vibes. 

–How so?

Ibushi: Well, I mean, I had a pretty damn tough time to get to that IWGP status. 

–You certainly had a long journey to winning the double titles on January 4 this year.

Ibushi: It took a New Japan Cup win and two G1 Climaxes. Throw my junior time in there and it was 12 years in NJPW before I got that title.

–I suppose if you just look at Takagi’s NJPW run, it’s been under three years, a very fast ascent. 

Ibushi: And let’s face it, even when he was a junior, he was a heavyweight. We all knew he was able to move up as soon as he came in, not just in weight but in skill, ability. 

–He had the benefit of years of experience in so many different places. 

Ibushi: Right, and that was immediately evident. But…

–But… it’s still a bit too fast for him to get to the top in your opinion?

Ibushi: He didn’t have to suffer for it like I did. I want him to feel that. That’s one more reason why I want to win on the 25th.

Maybe I was ignoring him


–You faced Shingo in the G1 in Hiroshima last year. In the end, he blocked a Kamigoye and turned it into Last of the Dragon for the victory.

Ibushi: League matches are a different deal for me. It’s one part of a big campaign, not something that gets a lot of room for thought and strategy. But this was a main event with Shingo, our first singles match, and I was 100% fired up for it. No even more so, considering there’s a debt that needs to be repaid. 

–In the months that followed, you won the G1, and went on to win the double titles. Shingo had beaten you in the G1, but the fact you didn’yt put his name out there, he said was you deliberately ducking and ignoring him. 

Ibushi: Maybe I was. 

–He thought you would be challenging him, considering that ‘debt’. 

Ibushi: Well, that comes down to wanting him to suffer some (laughs).

–A theme for Shingo, and something you and Okamoto from Tokyo Sports have coined together is ‘middle aged and fired up’. Not exactly a generous nickname, but Takagi’s energy levels are incredible for someone nearer 40 than 30. 

Ibushi: I think that fits him better than being a ‘Dragon’ or whatever. There are guys at our age who look young, act young, but nobody is as jacked up, all the time, as Shingo. I’m fired up too, but ion a bit more of a mysterious way…

–You’re certainly more explosive at certain periods. When that switch gets flipped. 

Ibushi: Takagi is just on all the time. He’s got more energy than the Young Lions. 

–Now even Shingo has started using that ‘fired up’ turn of phrase. 

Ibushi: Heh. I’m glad I could give him something. 

I meant what I said. 


–On March 30 at Korakuen, you were heading into your title match with Will Ospreay, while Shingo was commentating ringside. You said after the match that ‘(Shingo) has what Ospreay doesn’t’. 

Ibushi: I think back then I didn’t realise how soon I would be facing Takagi.

 –Were you very aware of Shingo at that time?

Ibushi: Of course. It just so happened that he was sitting there, and caught my eye, so I said what I did. I meant every word, it was a total shoot.

–But off the hip, nothing you’d planned. 

Ibushi: Right. Shingo has something you can only get with experience, something you can only understand with experience. Ospreay’s been in the business about eight years less than Takagi and I.

–Ospreay debuted in 2012. 

Ibushi: We debuted in 2004, and that really was a time where things were messed up in this business. There was a lot of irrational thought going on; if your seniors said the sky was pink, you had to agree with them. 

–You had to put up with a lot. 

Ibushi: And Takagi came up in exactly the same period, so he probably saw, heard, felt the same things I did. 

 –It’s quite incredible to have two wrestlers who didn’t come from the NJPW system headline an NJPW Tokyo Dome card. What are your thoughts on that?

Ibushi: Hmm. I think talent is talent, and there are great wrestlers in all kinds of companies, but that it’s only natural for the best of the best to gather here. That goes for foreign wrestlers as well, like AJ Styles a few years back. I don’t hold much stock in the idea of being a ‘true born NJPW’ guy. 

 –But this title match is an indication of just how far that movement has become, with two Japanese wrestlers from different backgrounds in the main event. 

Ibushi: Do you think so? If anything I’d like to know what the NJPW born and bred types think about that. But that said, I’ve been in NJPW longer than any other company.

–That’s a good point. 

Ibushi: So if anything, Takagi is the outsider here, heh. 

–How did you feel when Takagi was brought in by Tetsuya Naito as the new LIJ pareja in 2018?

Ibushi: It was like ‘oh, OK, looks like he’s coming in’. But I have a ton of respect for him as a wrestler. I like his style; if I was a fan I would cheer for him. He’s… different.


Ibushi: He’s got his own flavour to him, not NJPW, not LIJ. He seems closer to an old school All Japan style. Or maybe WAR. 

–Takagi was trained by WAR’s old leader Genichiro Tenryu. There’s a bit of an influence there. 

Ibushi: And apparently he was a fan of Atsushi Onita growing up. So his influences are all over. 

Even the most fired up of guys can fizzle out

–What were your thoughts first time you met Shingo?

Ibushi: First time we met would have been Dragon Gate, we were both one year in. But even then, it was like he had been wrestling for ten years. Young, obviously, but really composed, really together. 

–Is there anything you particularly have your eyes out for in that main event?

Ibushi: It’s got to be that fired up energy. But that can backfire; even the most fired up of guys can fizzle out. I hope that as he’s firing up, he might make a mistake.

–Takagi really goes full throttle all the way through his matches. 

Ibushi: He has every physical skill you can rattle off. I think of the people our age, it’s him and Jeff Cobb.

–An Olympian level of physical ability.

Ibushi: I think maybe on raw strength, Jeff Cobb has the edge, but Shingo is the better total package. Strength, speed, conditioning, mind for the business. He’s where he is for a reason. And he hasn’t even been injured in 17 years! There’s nobody like him.

–He’s incredibly explosive, but has peak conditioning as well.

Ibushi: I kick a lot, I fly a lot, and that’s taken it’s toll, like with my ankle and my foot. That’s only natural when you get to this point in a career. You start using the techniques you pick up along the way to get around that. But Takagi’s been able to rely on his physicality this whole time. But that does create a hole in his game. 

–It’s a double edged sword.

Ibushi: Right, there’s a positive and a negative to having all that energy. But, I’ll leave it at that. 

–Any last message to the fans before Grand Slam?

Ibushi: Well, this is my third of three Tokyo Dome main events this year. The Olympics are on, so while eyes are on Japan, I want to bring eyes to pro-wrestling. I really hope we can broaden pro-wrestling with this match, and create a lot of new fans.