With Fighting Spirit Unleashed hitting the Walter Pyramid on September 30 (limited tickets still available!) NJPW1972.com caught up with former IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada to talk about his history in America, and thoughts on returning to LA. (This interview was conducted before September 23)
Match lineup for “FIGHTING SPIRIT UNLEASHED”: https://www.njpw1972.com/tornament/33018?showCards=1
Tickets information: www.longbeachstate.com/njpw
— So first of all, I’d like to talk a little about NJPW’s expansion into America. How did you feel when you first heard the talk about New Japan advancing into the US in 2017?
Okada: Honestly, I had some reservations at first. I wondered ‘can we really sell enough tickets here?’ But I thought it was good that we were taking a first step into something new.
— Prior to last year, NJPW wrestlers had participated on ROH cards several times, but did it feel different heading to America with NJPW as its own entity?
Okada: Absolutely. I’d been all over the world already, so people knew me as a wrestler, but I didn’t know whether or not that interest would carry over to NJPW as its own separate promotion. That’s why I was worried about how well we’d do.
— The first events in LA, on July 1 and 2 2017, both sold out instantly. You were in the main event on the first night. How was it, being in that position?
Okada: I felt like I had to show the people what New Japan Pro Wrestling was all about. At the same time, I didn’t want to get caught up in catering to the American audience. I really wrestled that match as if it was in a Japanese venue. It was less about ‘we’re somewhere new, I need to show them who Kazuchika Okada is,’ and more about being in a title match situation (opposite Cody for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship), having the same presence of mind as always, and going to business as usual.
— There weren’t any preliminary tag matches with you two, so you skipped the rehearsals, as it were.
Okada: That’s right, we’d never touched before.
— How was it, wrestling Cody?
Okada: Like I expected, he was great. I don’t know how much came from his dad and how much he developed by himself, but he’s obviously very charismatic, and more than that, he isn’t excessively flashy. Some fans see guys who do flashy moves and might think ‘this guys a great wrestler,’ or ‘that guys tough’, but without big showy moves, he’s able to get the fans to know he’s really tough. He’s so fundamentally sound, too. A really good wrestler.
— This year, there’s been two events already in America. We’ve been in LA, on March 25, and San Francisco July 7.
Okada: Right.. I think maybe we’re overdoing it.. (Laughs)
— On March 25, during the Young Bucks versus Golden Lovers match, the crowd broke into ‘New Japan’ chants. Hiroshi Tanahashi was actually a little bit upset by that. How did you feel about the fans seeing their style of match and saying ‘oh, this is New Japan’?
Okada: I didn’t give it much thought. I mean, that match was on a New Japan card right? That makes it just as much ‘New Japan’ as anything else. Kenny, Ibushi, the Young Bucks are all perfectly aware that they’re wrestling in an NJPW ring. So I don’t really see the problem.
— I see.
Okada: But the one thing I will say, and I felt this about the Kenny vs Cody match (at Strong Style Evolved), since it is on a New Japan show, I’m not a fan of putting together cards that you could normally see in America. To be honest, Cody vs Kenny, that’s a match you could see on an American show.
— And it did happen in ROH. What you’re saying is you want distinctly New Japan cards in America.
Okada: Right. Cards that make you say ‘now this is NJPW’. To me, I think we should be showing the American fans what this thing called New Japan Pro Wrestling is.
— To change the subject a little, this past September 1, you were part of the big ALL IN show in Chicago. How was that experience?
Okada: It was awesome. Of course, it was great to have a match in front of about 12,000 people, and it was amazing to think ‘wow, Cody and the Bucks were able to put all this together’. It was a great card, I had a good match, it all showed the power of pro wrestling I think. For them to have their little YouTube channel, start Being The Elite, and have it grow into that, get that many people in the building, that’s amazing. I really felt that we saw new potential in professional wrestling. Really great.
— It stirred things up in the best possible way.
Okada: Yeah, I’d say so. There were a lot of legends there too. They came up to me and were really complementary.
— For example?
Okada: Road Warrior Animal was there, and Diamond Dallas Page. He said ‘your matches with Kenny were awesome’
— Some big names..
Okada: Hehe. I think especially as a Japanese, I tend to feel like the older generations wouldn’t know who I am, but it really surprised me, like ‘oh, hey, they know me.’ And it really gave me that confidence that NJPW is truly becoming a worldwide phenomenon, that people I’ve never met before will say those things to me. Tommy Dreamer and Bubba Ray, I’d known since my TNA days, so they’re a little different.
— Of course, now the LA Dojo is going strong and there are plenty of other things in the works. How do you see the expansion into America progress from here?
Okada: Like I said before, I really want to show the American fans what New Japan really is. So I’d love to have Okada versus Kenny there, but what I really want to show America is Okada versus Tanahashi. When, I don’t know, but..
— You want to take that match to the US.
Okada: A few years ago when we were in Chicago with ROH, we just stood across from one another and the crowd were chanting ‘holy sh*t!’
— Ah yes! Tanahashi has told that story.
Okada: That was all before NJPW World was as popular as it is now. For the foreign fans that one encounter was all they got of Okada versus Tanahashi, so just once I want to have that match and have the fans come home really feeling ‘I saw New Japan Pro Wrestling’.
— It’s exciting just to imagine how the crowd would receive that match.
Okada: Right. Just something I’d like to happen sometime.
— And how do you feel about the LA Dojo, and the group of young American guys being trained by Katsuyori Shibata?
Okada: I mean, it’s very early at this point. I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. Nobody does know what people will come out of there. But the original LA Dojo produced top stars for NJPW and for WWE. Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor), American Dragon (Daniel Bryan), Samoa Joe, Karl Anderson. Some really great talent. So if Shibata can raise that quality of wrestler, continue that lineage, that’d be great.
— Finally, what do you want to show the American fans September 30 at Walter Pyramid?
Okada: I’m going to show you how we do it in New Japan Pro Wrestling. That’s what you get whenever I wrestle, whoever’s in the ring with me. At ALL IN, I came in intending to represent NJPW as only I can. And when you think of a Japanese representative for NJPW, I’m really the only one for that job. Not Tanahashi, not Naito. I am the face of NJPW. I’m going to take that responsibility seriously, and I’m going to tear it up in the Walter Pyramid.
Watch Fighting Spirit Unleashed LIVE exclusively on NJPW World on September 30 at 5PM Pacific, with English commentary from Kevin Kelly and Jim Ross!