— Next up, on August 1st in Kagoshima, you face Hirooki Goto.
Naito ‘The thing about him is once upon a time here was a guy people were saying was like one of the Four Heavenly Kings (of All Japan’s golden age) and now somehow he’s in CHAOS, and I have to wonder, is he in any way happy? He’s a disappointment. Man, I don’t know. Maybe he’ll get fired up. Paint himself white again or something.’
–Would you be more motivated against him if he did?
Naito ‘No, in motivated either way. It’s all good fun either way. Two years ago when I faced him, in my mind, he just at some point lost all sense of presence. He’s not even worth talking about. I’m more interested in talking about Kagoshima itself. I like that place. The arena’s a beautiful building. The building is more interesting than Goto is.’
–Next in Ehime it’s Zack Sabre Junior in his first G1.
Naito ‘I actually faced him in a tag match once in England. He’s an amazing technician, does all sorts of things on the ground. I think he’ll put me in a lot of situations I’ve never been in before. I’m looking forward to that one.’
— The fans will witness a lot of offense they haven’t seen before.
Naito ‘Tough point for him is his style is very difficult to get across to people watching him for the first time. And with that match being in Ehime, it’s very much an away game for him.’
–He’s better off in Korakuen..?
Naito ‘Yeah. It’s hard to imagine anything he does really resonating with the crowd. I think that crowd will be entirely behind me. I hope that doesn’t break the kid’s heart, and he can bring that technical stuff to me.’
–On August 6 in Hamamatsu you face Makabe. A lot of people remember your match in the 2012 G1 Climax with him.
Naito ‘Right. That year, the next match in Sendai I tore that ligament in my knee. But I remember that Makabe match well.’
–Has it not been quite a while since you wrestled him?
Naito ‘Not so long, we wrestled two years ago in the G1.’
— He does a lot of TV appearances these days, represents the company on variety TV and in dramas. He’s arguably the most famous person on the New Japan roster. Do you have any respect for that?
Naito ‘He’s definitely famous. And he’s great, he really has a lot of talents outside the ring. I just kinda think he should stay outside the ring.’
— Another harsh assessment.
Naito ‘Look, is this a tournament to find out who’s the most famous? No. This is competition. I’m not knocking his talents, he’s a talented guy, very entertaining. But if you go and be an entertainer, you’re not going to be able to get it done as well in the ring. I don’t see him being in title contention again.’
— With his partner Honma injured, he seems a ways away from contention.
Naito ‘And because of that, he just doesn’t seem to fit in the G1 anymore. I’m not looking to denigrate what he does outside of the company at all, but if that’s what he wants to do, why not step away from the ring? If he doesn’t, it’s going to be a very tough G1 for him and for the fans.’
–That match comes right near the end of the league.
Naito ‘I’m really worried that he can make it that far. I mean, if he forfeits, that’s thousands of disappointed fans that paid good money to see Tetsuya Naito. I only hope that doesn’t happen.’
— So getting to the finals, on August 11 in Ryogoku, your last group match with Tanahashi. Your thoughts on him in your Osaka Jo Hall match at Dominion?
Naito ‘He was… stoic.’
–You had a lot of harsh words for Tanahashi before that match, but it was a rare tapout loss for you. Do you see Tanahashi in a more respectful light now?
Naito ‘Respect, I don’t know. But he carried this company for a very long time. That’s the truth. That’s his stoicism. And I did tap out to the Texas Cloverleaf. That’s also the truth.’
–You respect that much.
Naito ‘But don’t get it wrong. Naito and Tanahashi. That’s still the order. Yes, I tapped out. I did. But the order is, still, Naito then Tanahashi. Not Tanahashi then Naito. And I still felt that in Osaka.’
— Your status is still higher than his. What makes you say that?
Naito ‘Think about it. “I beat Naito”. “I saved that belt Naito was disrespecting”. “I fixed the belt Naito broke”. The subject of all those sentences is Tetsuya Naito. The subject of all he’s said has been me. I am the basis of who he is now.’
–If you put it that way…
Naito ‘Maybe it was different before, but in Osaka, Tanahashi was basing himself on me. Once upon a time, Tanahashi shone. Tanahashi was the sun. Now he’s the moon. He can’t shine on his own. His light, all that is, it’s a reflection of mine.’
–Even if he beats you it doesn’t change things?
Naito ‘Granted, he beat me in our last match, and he is the champion now. But on August 11, it definitely feels like he’s challenging me. That’s the story of that match.’
–Even if he has the belt?
Naito ‘Even if he has the belt, even though I lost to him.’
— Because your name has surpassed his.
Naito ‘Exactly. That order will never change again. That I have Tanahashi in the last league match, it’s not going to be the thriller that some may think it will. The interest will be in thinking who will face me in the finals on the 13th? That’s the part that’s up in the air, that’s more exciting.’
–So, then, who will that be? Who do you think will win, and who would you want to face in the final?
Naito ‘I think if you surveyed all the fans, the top two answers would be Okada or Kenny. In terms of raw ability, those two are at the top. But I want EVIL or SANADA to be up there. The fans can predict who they want, but I want EVIL or SANADA to upset the balance and make it to the final.’
–And if you had to pick one? EVIL or SANADA?
Naito ‘I’d say EVIL.’
–Really? Why is that?
Naito ‘Well, I definitely do want to say I’ve never had a singles match with SANADA and I definitely want to wrestle him. But, teaming with both, I really get the feeling that EVIL resents SANADA. He has a lot of envy, a lot of heat, a big sense that SANADA is his rival. Maybe SANADA feels the same about EVIL, but EVIL is the one that really shows that passion in the ring.’
–You think you can have a really special match with EVIL?
Naito ‘Yes. The G1 is the most important tournament in wrestling, and us, Los Ingobernables De Japon are the most important unit. Even though we’re the same group, rivalries get born and flourish. And showing that to the fans, that’s something that makes Los Ingobernables De Japon more exciting. And a Los Ingobernables final would be the best thing for the G1.’
— You want EVIL, but you’d be happy with SANADA.
Naito ‘Right. I predict Kenny or Okada, but I want EVIL or SANADA.’
–A lot of people regard you as the overall favourite for the G1 this year. Are you aware of that?
Naito ‘Oh, yeah.’
— Your 2013 G1 victory had a lot of repercussions.
Naito ‘It took me aback. What people see you as before winning the G1 and afterward, it’s very different. I realised winning the G1 was a bigger deal than I had ever imagined.’
— Back then though, you were the Stardust Genius. Now, you’re part of LIJ. With the influence LIJ has, you have to think a win this year would be an even bigger deal.
Naito ‘Hm. I say the G1 is the biggest springboard there is. The biggest launching pad. And I jumped off that springboard in 2013, but I didn’t make the most out of that momentum. This time, I’ll jump higher than anyone has ever flown.’
–You can handle it this year, as part of LIJ.
Naito ‘Right. So I want to see just how far I can fly, just how high I can go. How high can I get, and what will The view be like from up there? That’s exciting.’