As Jyushin Thunder Liger counts down to his retirement matches on January 4 and 5, and his retirement ceremony on January 6, the Liger sessions sees him in conversation with figures key to his career and life in wrestling. This third session sees him talk to none other than the Ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi!
Whether you have a belt or not doesn’t make a difference: to me, Hiroshi Tanahashi is always the champ!
— So after we had Togi Makabe for a two part conversation, the next guest in the Liger sessions is Hiroshi Tanahashi!
Hiroshi Tanahashi (HT): I’ve been looking forward to it!
Jyushin Thunder Liger (JL): Me too!
–Just to get started, when you guys are normally chatting, how do you address one another?
JL: Weird question to start ? He’s Tana-cho to me.
HT: Just Liger-san!
–Liger, you’ve talked about Tanahashi being the ‘ideal champion’. Do you ever just call him ‘champ’?
HT: Haha! Too kind. Maybe when I have a belt that’s fine…
–But you don’t always have a belt. (laughs)
JL: Nah, whether you have a belt or not doesn’t make a difference. Hiroshi Tanahashi is always the champ in my book!
JL: You just can’t deny the fact that he’s changed so much about NJPW and all of pro wrestling. Just take his whole ‘I love you!’ thing. A lot of veteran wrestlers and old fans scoffed at him saying that at first. Even me! I was thinking ‘what the hell is he saying in the ring?’
–It made you feel awkward?
JL: It did. But now, you can’t end a show without it. Either by himself or with other wrestlers. At the end of the day if you ask ‘who changed NJPW from the old ways of doing things?’ the answer is Tanahashi.
–How does that hearing that make you feel?
HT: Delighted. I mean, before I started the whole ‘I love you’ thing, shows just ended. I wanted to make sure that people came back, and I wanted to convey my gratitude to them. All of a sudden I had a mic in my hands. Ever since, closing out the night on the mic has become standard practice, so that’s become challenging for some…
HT: But I think now you have guys like Naito and Okada who are even better on the mic, and that’s for the better, all things considered.
–And Liger, you saw all this change take place in front of you.
JL: Right. But it wasn’t that NJPW changed, it was Tanahashi doing the changing. He spoke to what Antonio Inoki would often theorize about, the ‘eighth ring of fandom’.
–Inoki would talk about the circles of fandom, where the first six are hardcore fans, the seventh circle is more distant, and the eighth is normally uninterested and needs convincing.
JL: How do you get that eighth circle interested? Inoki was constantly, constantly asking that question, but at some point, we as pro-wrestlers just started catering to the hardcores. That door started to close. Tanahashi opened it again.
–He began a new era.
JL: To the rest of us, it felt a little bit weird at first, but he opened a door, to Inoki’s ‘eighth circle’. It was under his own power that he got the people on the fringes interested and involved.
–It certainly seemed as if Tanahashi was more conscious of society at large.
HT: I’m aware of Inoki’s theory, and thinking about growing the fanbase is always a key theme for me. But, Liger-san, you talked about that door being shut, but you were often on TV ever since back in the day. I remember a certain leaf gimmick?
JL: Ahhhh. Ah.
— There was a sketch show on Fuji TV. A certain someone doing a dance with just a leaf covering things up down there.
HT: It was hilarious! I was watching that as a wrestling fan, but it made me so happy to see a wrestler on TV, but not on wrestling TV, you know? To the fans, it’s great to see a wrestler in a different light, but to non fans as well, it makes them think ‘oh, this kind of guy wrestles too’. That’s important.
HT: A while back I had the chance to do a roundtable with Antonio Inoki for ‘Weekly Playboy’ magazine. He was talking about the ‘Prime Time era’ in NJPW history, that New Japan being on prime time was a pie that every promotion was able to get a slice of. I said ‘I’m here to bring everyone a new pie’.
The Suzuki/Liger match was just so moving. You saw the kind of relationship they had in the Dojo days in that match.
–Let’s talk about October 14, and Liger’s match with Minoru Suzuki. Tanahashi, you were there doing commentary, and were moved to tears after the match.
HT: Ah, man it got to me. Suzuki at the end there, heheh.
JL: I was laid out at the end, I didn’t realize what happened.
–Really? Suzuki moved to attack you with a chair post match but cast it aside and bowed down to you.
JL: I saw him move toward me with the chair. I was laying there and thought ‘man getting hit with that is gonna suck’, but then he disappeared from my view, and nothing happened. I thought it was a case of the samurai showing mercy to his fallen foe. Then I heard this big reaction from the crowd and I’m lying there going ‘what the hell is going on? I can’t see a damn thing, I can’t move here’ (laughs).
HT: The next day at the Dojo, Liger told me ‘I have no idea what Suzuki did at the end of the match’ and it got me all over again, emotionally.
–It was really Suzuki, and all his attacks that brought us to that singles match. How do you perceive Suzuki’s bow after all that?
HT: Hmmm… If I were to put myself in that situation, I think the guys you’ve shared a Dojo with have a special significance. For me, (Katsuyori) Shibata, (Wataru) Inoue, those guys are different to anyone else. Suzuki had come into the Dojo after Liger, and you got that real sense of Suzuki with his senpai.
HT: All the while as they were in those preliminary tags, Suzuki was trying to push Liger’s buttons, trying to make him angry. Looking at it from a wrestler’s perspective, I was asking myself ‘why is he doing that? Just to get him mad? Or is he trying to pull out that frightening side of Liger, the awesome side of Liger?’.
–That’s the sort of thing that another wrestler can really pick up on.
HT: So watching that match from ringside, it was just so moving. You saw the kind of relationship they’d had in the Dojo.
–Liger, your parting comment on the mic after that Suzuki match was ‘Thanks, Suzuki’. Can you reflect a little on that?
JL: Tanahashi spoke a little bit to it, but at the end of the day Suzuki and I both did our learning in the ‘Fujiwara Dojo’.
–You both learned ground wrestling under the man they called the ‘Submission demon’, the legendary Yoshiaki Fujiwara.
JL: Our roots are the same, and to an extent I understand where Suzuki was coming from arguing about me going quietly into retirement. But to get me to that singles match, man he made my blood boil.
–You said beforehand that it wasn’t going to be a match between you two, that you were going to kill one another.
JL: Right, and I felt before that Ryogoku match, more than a wrestler, I had been seen as this kindly old man figure because I was retiring. Pro wrestling is combat, though, and if you’re not in that mindset then there’s no point in being in the ring.
–Fans, office staff, wrestlers, everyone was absorbed in the conflict between you two.
JL: Well, I’d be lying if I wasn’t a bit vexed, that Suzuki carried me so completely in the palm of his hand. But he understood just who Jyushin Thunder Liger is, and he lit a fire under my ass, too. That’s why I thanked him on the mic, perhaps.
One of the seven wonders of the wrestling world… Why does Liger have that body and choose to cover it up? It goes beyond modesty…
–Now, it was against Suzuki that we saw Battle Liger return.
HT: Yes! I didn’t think that I’d see Battle Liger again. That made me really happy.
–It’s a rare sight, we don’t see it much.
JL: For me it was a simple enough choice; Suzuki had grabbed at the horns on my mask during the preliminary matches, so I figured it would be better to get rid of them.
HT: But watching Liger train for the Suzuki match in the Dojo just took me aback. Just how much the guy lifts; I get tired just watching him. We finally got to see the results in Ryogoku.
JL: Oh, stop.
HT: It always gets me. Why does Liger have a body like that and choose to cover it up? It’s one of the seven wonders of the wrestling world. It goes way beyond modesty.
–Modesty is way in the rear view mirror.
HT: So the fact we got to see the topless Liger one more time, that was another great part about the Suzuki match. It gave the new generation just a taste of Battle Liger’s appeal.
–There was one pop as people realized it was Battle Liger, and then another when people realized how jacked you were.
JL: No, no! That reaction came because I’m normally covered up and then all of a sudden, here’s something different. It’s not like I have a physique to come close to Tanahashi, or the younger guys.
JL: I’ll ‘nonsense’ you! He likes to blow smoke up my ass, but truth is, him, Makabe, the young kids, they all train much harder than me. Tanahashi’s just a specialist when it comes to bodybuilding. Recently we got a new machine at the Dojo, and he’s on there tweaking with the thing, ‘not like that, not like that,’ until it’s right for him.
JL: I’ve said this before, I know, but Tanahashi and Makabe, they have other work to do. Yet they absolutely have to make time to train every single day. Even if it’s first thing in the morning or late at night, they’re in the Dojo. I know, ‘coz I live there.
–You see them more than anybody else.
JL: Forget about who’s doing what when, the point is everybody trains hard, otherwise they don’t belong in NJPW. So when it came to me at Ryogoku, it was just a case of an old man getting a pop for taking his normal outfit off. I mean, swimsuit pin-ups are nice and all, but if you see a girl who’s normally more conservative suddenly bare all, you suddenly sit up and take notice, am I right?
HT: You’re right! (laughs)
–I think you answered a little too quickly there. (laughs)
JL: Well, metaphors aside, my point is NJPW wrestlers are awesome, that’s all.
Kobe was the first time in my career I had a match that ended without me doing anything.
–To stay on the Suzuki theme a little bit, in September at Destruction in Kobe, we saw Kishin Liger appear for the first time since 2012. Tanahashi, you were tagging with Liger that night.
HT: I was. In 20 years, that was the first time in my career I had a match that ended without me doing anything.
JL: Really? Oh, man I’m sorry! It was all a bit of a blur! (laughs)
HT: Then when you and Suzuki were fighting to the back, I tried to stop you and you hit me. Your own friend…
JL: Oh no!
HT: It was a big show, so I went to a salon beforehand. Got my hair made up and everything. Two and a half hours I was in there, and then…
JL: I’m really sorry!
HT: Two and a half hours in the salon, three minute match. And I didn’t even do anything.
JL: Ahhhhh! Liger sucks! Liger sucks! Please forgive me!
HT: Ah, no, it’s ok, really. And it’s partly because of Kobe that Ryogoku meant so much.
JL: Tana-cho, you’re such a sweetheart.
HT: I just wish one of our photographers had gotten a nice picture of me posing on the turnbuckle with my new ‘do.
— …But Liger attacked Suzuki from behind during his entrance so you didn’t even get to walk out.
HT: We were getting ready to go and then all of a sudden Liger wasn’t there. The rest of us just looking at each other confused.
JL: No words… I’m sorry!
We’re on fire already, no worries about that. I mean, Tana-cho is here!
–Honestly, what did you think when you heard Liger would be retiring?
HT: Obviously I was sad. I’m a Liger kid; I started really getting into wrestling when I was in High School, and that’s when the junior heavyweights were really on fire.
–You’re talking about the junior heavyweight golden age of the 1990s. The ’94 Super J-Cup and everything that sprung from there…
HT: And even after I became a wrestler, to hear the opening bars of his entrance music and that pop, every time. Even when NJPW was in its darkest days and there weren’t many fans in the building, it was Pavlovian. The music, the pop. Every time.
–The combination of Liger’s drawing power and just how good that theme is.
HT: It kept me strong, I think. Even when things were rough, it was always ‘we’re going to be OK, Liger’s here!’
JL: Oh, that’s a bit melodramatic!
HT: No, I’m serious. When I was in my first IWGP title reign, I’d be backstage, waiting for the main event to go down. I’d sit there and hear these flat crowds, but when Liger’s music hit and you got that pop, it was ‘OK, let’s do it’.
–You got that feedback.
HT: How we stay hot after Liger retires, that’s what’s important.
JL: We’re on fire already, no worries about that. I mean, Tana-cho is here! Generations change. Once upon a time it was Fujinami and Satoru Sayama, the original Tiger Mask. Then it was Muto, Chono, Hashimoto. Then the third generation with guys like Tenzan. Now you. That’s just the way time works.
–Tanahashi was just talking about how he was reassured by you being there during the difficult times, but was there a conscious feeling on your part to lead the locker room in that way, make sure the fans responded?
JL: Nah, not really. I was just doing my thing, which I always do. (laughs) But when Makabe, or Tanahashi would say stuff like ‘OK next time, we’re going to have double the people here’, I absolutely agreed with that, and it motivated me.
–Your juniors lit a fire in you.
JL: Look, when Bushiroad brought NJPW, the first thing that they wanted to do, and did, was to let the world know about us, and about pro-wrestling. But Tanahashi was already doing what he could do in that regard. He had the foresight to realize what this business needed, and went out and did it. That’s not blowing smoke or anything. That’s the truth.
HT: You’re embarrassing me…
JL: Tanahashi has said in the past ‘a wrestler’s job is much more than wrestling’, and that’s the absolute truth. Inoki realized that, Bushiroad know that, Tanahashi knows that. That’s why he’s the champ in my book.
–We’ve come full circle.
JL: Yeah! To me, far more than The Ace, Tanahashi is The Champ!
HT: OK! From today, it’s ‘Go Champ!’
Next time in the Liger sessions, part two with Tanahashi as he and Liger talk about ‘Scary Liger’ and much more!