Daniel Bryan has stated that one of his dream opponents is five-time IWGP junior heavyweight champion and New Japan Pro Wrestling star KUSHIDA. The 34-year-old KUSHIDA is the reigning Ring of Honor World Television champion. He also etched his name into wrestling history by winning the vaunted Best of the Super Juniors tournament this past summer in Japan.
KUSHIDA is in Las Vegas tonight to defend his ROH TV title against Kenny King at the Death Before Dishonor pay per view, and he spoke with Sports Illustrated in this exclusive to discuss his journey, a match against Daniel Bryan, and future goals for one of the most talented wrestlers in the world.
SI.com: Has it been a challenge to be Ring of Honor Television champion while also defending the IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship in Japan?
KUSHIDA: I debuted in Mexico in 2005, so I’ve been in the business for 12 years, but this is the busiest I’ve ever been. I used to have jet lag, and get groggy going back and forth between America and Japan, but now I’m totally used to it. I’ve gotten tougher as well. I’ve always had this image in mind of a wrestler taking one suitcase all over the world, and to do that makes me very happy.
To have such a rich variety of opponents is really a blessing from the wrestling gods. In the New Japan junior heavyweights, right now, there’s Hiromu Takahashi, Will Ospreay, and Marty Scurll. If you look further back, there was Kota Ibushi, Kenny Omega, and Prince Devitt [Finn Balor]. In Ring of Honor, there’s been Jay Lethal, Roderick Strong, Bobby Fish, Kyle O’Reilly, and Adam Cole, who are all really amazing opponents that helped me grow as a wrestler. Then there’s Alex Shelley, who I’m always ready to reform the Timesplitters and team with again.
The title defenses are incredibly tough, physically and mentally, but the sense of accomplishment I get from them I wouldn’t trade for the world. I want to keep defending both belts for as long as possible.
SI.com: In June, Daniel Bryan mentioned that you are someone he would love to wrestle. This could be a dream match for Wrestle Kingdom if Bryan were cleared to wrestle again. What do you think made Bryan so special in the ring? What type of match would you two deliver?
KUSHIDA: Of course my answer is Yes! Yes! Yes!
I was really honored to hear what he’d said. When I was a fan I really loved the American Dragon and Curry Man team and their chase for the IWGP Junior Tag Championships. A guy like Bryan, or Rey Mysterio, they aren’t necessarily the biggest, but they still managed to get to the top of the business. As someone of roughly the same size, I really hold them in high regard. They’re proof you can live your dreams if you believe and work hard.
If he ever comes back, I’d love to wrestle him. I think it wouldn’t be a case of looking to the crowd, we’d just be focused on each other and let our wrestling do the talking. I hope it’ll happen sometime.
SI.com: What is the biggest difference between wrestling in Japan and wrestling in America?
KUSHIDA: As far as New Japan goes, one huge difference is the opening match. We have the Young Lions [younger talent]. This is just my opinion, but I think the next time NJPW goes to America, the opening match should be a Young Lion match. Black tights and black boots, that’s the origin of NJPW, it’s iconic. You look at indies worldwide and from the first match to the main event, it’s all the same style. For a lot of indie guys, this might be their first and last chance in front of an audience, so if they’re in the opening match, they still feel they have to show off everything they have. Everyone’s in such a rush to get everything done.
Now, I understand where that comes from, and I’m not saying I dislike it. But New Japan is different. It’s more basic. New Japan veterans know the importance of strong fundamentals and how important they are to protect. The title matches, the later matches on the card, they exist for doing more. Maybe I sound like a grumpy old man for saying it, but that is how I feel.
SI.com: You are a heavyweight in America but a junior heavyweight in Japan. Would you ever consider a change, similar to Kenny Omega, and become a full-time heavyweight?
KUSHIDA: I’d like to be able to wrestle heavyweights in Japan, too. The last two years or so, I’ve had real confidence that if I had a singles match with a heavyweight, it’d be really good. I have a junior heavyweight’s body, and I can’t change that. I’ll always be a junior, but I’d still like to face heavyweights. There are all sorts of ways it can happen.
I think one of the charms of martial arts is honing techniques so that a smaller guy can beat a larger opponent. That’s the idea I have. Nowadays, this size mystique has gone; regardless of how big you are, a good wrestler is a good wrestler. So at home and abroad, I want to carry the junior division and fight all comers regardless of weight class. After all, I still haven’t forgotten the time way back when I challenged Tomohiro Ishii for the NEVER title and came up short. I want revenge for that.
SI.com: Who do you believe are the top three wrestlers alive in the world today?
KUSHIDA: The Great Muta, Jushin Thunder Liger, and Kazushi Sakuraba.
SI.com: You are one of the most exciting wrestlers in the world, and you wrestle a grueling, difficult style that is one of the best in the world. How did you create your style of wrestling?
KUSHIDA: Well, I learned how to grapple from Kazushi Sakuraba, and it’s that technique, plus a pro wrestler’s preparedness for any situation. Yoji Anjo and Tajiri then taught me so much about psychology. I think, especially if it wasn’t for Tajiri and Sakuraba, I wouldn’t be the wrestler I am today. I still have immense respect for them. They became famous all over the world, and both used their technical ability and psychology to deal with opponents who were much larger than them. They’re also both crazy drinkers. That’s had some influence on me, too.
SI.com: Your MMA record is 6-0-2. Did you ever consider fighting in the UFC?
KUSHIDA: Never. But on my off days I do jiu jitsu or grapple with Sakuraba. I still practice. It’s all part of who I am as a wrestler. In my 15 years wrestling, I’ve always been motivated by seeking out new techniques, evolving my craft. MMA, jiu jitsu, it’s evolving constantly, day in and day out, so it only makes sense that pro wrestling should do the same. Wrestlers that are influenced by MMA, with that style and that base, those are my favorite opponents.
SI.com: You recently won the Best of the Super Juniors for the second time in three years. Did you have extra incentive and inspiration this year after Jushin Liger announced 2017 was his final BOSJ tournament?
KUSHIDA: The Best of the Super Juniors really has a special significance to junior heavyweight wrestlers. Maybe from now on there’ll be an even greater opening for the very best junior heavyweights all over the world. Certainly there’s a greater pressure on my generation to maintain such a high quality in tournaments going forward. I never imagined growing up that I would take this prestigious honor not once, but twice. I’m already excited for next year.
SI.com: What is your next goal to accomplish in wrestling?
KUSHIDA: I want to continue to help grow NJPW and I want, as a junior heavyweight, to prove myself more with the heavyweights. I want to give it my all in Japan and internationally. Hell, I already am. For me personally there are a lot of guys I’d love to have singles matches with, people I really want to wrestle before I ever retire. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, Minoru Suzuki, YOSHI-HASHI, SANADA, Tetsuya Naito, Kazuchika Okada, it goes on and on. And I want to go to even more countries to wrestle. Places I’ve never been before. South America, I’d love to go to. Bolivia or Chile. Africa, too. I’d love to wrestle in those environments, I’m just waiting for an offer. If that chance comes to get even more people aware of Japanese wrestling and of NJPW, then I could want nothing more.