New Japan Pro Wrestling star – and Los Ingobernables de Japon leader – Tetsuya Naito cemented his name in wrestling history by winning the grueling G1 Climax tournament on Aug. 13 with a victory over 2016 winner, Kenny Omega. Naito spoke with Sports Illustrated in this exclusive to discuss LIJ, Omega, and Okada. His match with Omega, which can be viewed with English commentary on New Japan World, will air on AXS TV with Jim Ross providing the play-by-play later this October.
SI.com: How important was it for you to redeem last year’s G1 loss to Kenny Omega? Do you respect Omega and his Bullet Club?
Naito: There’s no doubt that Kenny Omega is a phenomenal wrestler. Every time I’m in the ring with him, my heart beats out my chest. I can’t wait to wrestle him again. He’s world class. But Bullet Club? What happened to them? What happened to the energy they used to have? There are a lot of great individual wrestlers in there, but look at them as a unit, and I don’t see any appeal whatsoever.
SI.com: Does winning the G1 mean you are the most elite wrestler in the world?
Naito: The G1 Climax has such prestige as a tournament that I think the winner has the right to emblazon that on their chest. At this G1’s Climax, TetsuyaNaito and Los Ingobernables de Japon saw our prestige rise even further.
SI.com: Hirsoshi Tanahashi is a seven-time winner of the IWGP heavyweight championship and one of the greatest of all time, yet you have defeated him in two out of your past three matches. What is your secret to beating Tanahashi?
Naito: Of course Tanahashi was a great wrestler. He was someone I used to aspire to be. But that’s all in the past now. The shining star that was Hiroshi Tanahashi is long gone. As far as the final block match is concerned, it was just another block match that led me to the finals. No secret tactics needed. The result was a matter of course.
SI.com: What makes the G1 such a grueling tournament? Does the tournament make New Japan superior to other companies, like WWE and Ring of Honor?
Naito: The G1 Climax is a huge springboard for a wrestler’s career. Everyone who enters has a chance to launch themself into the stratosphere. Right now, I’ve launched myself off that springboard. I’m on my way up. How far I’ll go, what I’ll be able to see at the peak, I don’t know, but I’m really excited to find out. I don’t know whether New Japan thinks the tournament makes them superior, but they’re establishing the name worldwide and they’re doing it with confidence. I think the words you used before, most elite in the world? They’re an appropriate description.
SI.com: Kazuchika Okada is known as one of, if not the, greatest wrestler in the world. Does it bother you that people believe Okada is better than you?
Naito: I think there are a lot of fans that love Okada and don’t want to respect me. I understand that. But what I want to say to those people is, “Are your eyes really open? Are you really watching?” They should do what I do, pry their eyes open and watch. Then they’d understand.
SI.com: What does the G1 win mean for LIJ?
Naito: We at Los Ingobernables de Japon are a competitive unit. We’re never satisfied with where we are, we’re motivated every match to outdo each other. I’m sorry, but if any of us suddenly felt happy with where we are, or didn’t feel any sense of rivalry with our stablemates, there would be no room for them in the unit. My G1 has led us to a new stage. It’s given the other members inspiration to feel even more competitive, to work even harder. And it’s going to make for an even more exciting time to support Los Ingobernables de Japon.