Surrounded by a throng of media, unrelenting in both admiration and questions, Hiroshi Tanahashi somehow never lost his composure.
Perspiration covered his body, yet somehow, in the sweltering humidity of one of Japan’s brutally hot summers, the “Ace” had an answer for everything thrown his direction.
Exhausted from a 30-minute potential Match of the Year with Kota Ibushi, five years his junior and possessing no equal when it comes to cardio, Tanahashi then took time to answer questions for the TV Asahi news broadcast and the local media. Reporters left no question unasked at the G1 press conference, including a question about The Reigning Emperor of Japan.
Japan follows its own calendar, and 2018 is year 30 of the Heisei era. These are the final few months of the Heisei era, as the emperor—84-year-old Emperor Akihito—decided to step down at the end of next April. His son will take over, starting a new era, and Tanahashi was asked by a reporter if he feels added pressure to win the IWGP championship at Wrestle Kingdom 13 this upcoming January since it will be the last Wrestle Kingdom of the Heisei period.
“No matter what era, I am just doing what I can do,” Tanahashi calmly explained. “I can’t expect what’s going to happen, but I can prepare myself to be my best.”
Tanahashi carried the interview, just like he has carried New Japan Pro Wrestling for the better part of the last decade. But the question is, does the 41-year-old have one more run atop the company in the spot currently held by IWGP heavyweight champion Kenny Omega?
If you ask Tanahashi, there is no doubt that the answer is yes.
“Many times I have heard that phrase about my age, but what can I say?” said Tanahashi. “My future is my future. I don’t want to let anyone close the door on my future.
“I survived the G1. This means I am the best in New Japan.”
In a promotion that is expanding internationally, widening its reach across the globe, and diversifying its roster, it was refreshing to have one constant return: Hiroshi Tanahashi remains the “Ace” of New Japan.
Parallel to the press conference, 30 people—senior citizens, adults, and children—were ushered into the room immediately as the media exited. Tanahashi took smiling photographs, flashing the trademark Kamen Rider finger pose in every shot.
Tanahashi then was escorted to a private area, only stopping along the way to have his handler pat down the drips of glistening sweat on his back.
“Have we met?” he asked me, before recalling a meeting two years prior. “Yes, yes, in New York.”
Tanahashi is a Hollywood star in Japan, transcending the already-burgeoning world of professional wrestling. Yet, despite his fame and fortune, he remains, first and foremost, a pro wrestler.
A 41-year-old pro wrestler. A pro wrestler who is battered, bruised, and dealt with nonstop injuries to his bicep that only worsened the more he tried to work through it. Tanahashi may be Hollywood, but he is not soft. His elders would not have allowed it.
The mind plays tricks on aging athletes. First, there is no reason to doubt you are not the same competitor that you were 10 or 20 years prior. Then, after repeated stints on the injured reserve and away from the ring, the mind begins to question—first slowly, then ferociously—what the body can handle. Self-doubt then cripples ability.
“Before I walked to the ring tonight, I was very, very nervous,” said Tanahashi, who was in the G1 Climax finals for the first time in three years. “So I pictured Shawn Michaels. I love, love Shawn Michaels. He was my inspiration, and always seemed to be having fun all the time in the ring. There is pressure and injury in the ring, but I needed to remember there is joy, too. So that’s what I did.”
As an ode to “The Heartbreak Kid”, Tanahashi’s nickname with New Japan stalwart Togi Makabe is “Sexy Boy.” But there is nothing sexy about the G1 Climax, which covers a sprawling terrain of territory throughout Japan. New Japan’s famed round robin tournament, that ran this year from July 14 to August 12, requires wrestlers to perform at the highest level in nine different matches. Tanahashi and Ibushi each advanced to the finals, wrestling a 30-minute match that exceeded even the highest of expectations.
Ambition does not recede for a pro wrestler. There is always one more match. For Tanahashi, it is one more run. His sights are set on the IWGP heavyweight championship. Although he keeps hearing about his allegedly advanced age at 41, the only number he cares about is eight—as in an eighth run with the IWGP title.
The wrestling world has shifted since Tanahashi last won the G1, with New Japan at the head of the change. Kenny Omega is ahead of that movement, ushering in a dynamic product that connects with fans on social media while still respecting old-school Japanese ring psychology.
Tanahashi is not necessarily anti-Omega, but he is open about the fact that the two men share differing opinions on how to lead a company.
“Kenny made a new movement, created a new trend in New Japan Pro Wrestling,” said Tanahashi, alternating between English and Japanese. “He does extreme moves and people love him, but New Japan Pro Wrestling has a different ideology of pro wrestling. Kenny’s ideology is different than my ideology, and that is the biggest difference between us.”
Tanahashi also offered advice for Ibushi, who refused to shake the winner’s hand after the emotional G1 finale.
“Kota is the future, but he should be separated from Kenny,” said Tanahashi, referring to the Golden Lovers tag team of Ibushi and Omega. “He is part of Bullet Club Elite, but cannot be the brightest star standing next to Kenny. I have big expectations for him, but Ibushi no longer needs my help.”
Tanahashi’s goal is to return to his spot as top wrestler in New Japan, which, in some ways, makes you the top wrestler in the world. His return to prominence will need to include a victory over Kazuchika Okada, who defeated Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in 2016 and then again this past May at Wrestling Dontaku.
Tanahashi intends to put his title contract, won courtesy of his G1 victory, up against Okada. In order to be the best, he knows he needs to beat the best.
“That is why the G1 was a special night,” said Tanahashi. “That’s why I finished the match with my High Fly Flows. I proved Tanahashi is back.
“The last two years, my mind thought I was in completely perfect shape but it didn’t understand how my body was up-and-down. Now, I made a comeback, a complete comeback from injury. I haven’t had this kind of positive result in my recent fights, so at the moment, I am purely happy.”
In order to keep playing his air guitar encores, Tanahashi admitted he needed to take a painkilling injection before the match against Ibushi so he could perform at the highest level possible.
“I took a cortisone shot before the match to my knees,” said Tanahashi. “I took one before in 2007, but nothing since. I decided this the night before the match.
“The G1 is a battle for the spirit on the body. When I won three years ago, I could do more moves. Moves that only I could do. Now, I am a little more limited physically, but I am smarter in the ring.”
Tanahashi is not ready to cede his position atop the company, whether that be to Okada, Ibushi, Tetsuya Naito, or Omega.
He knows he worked too hard, for too long, not to lead New Japan through this international expansion. There is no doubt that dreams of headlining next April’s landmark show with Ring of Honor at the world-famous Madison Square Garden have kept him awake at night.
Tanahashi carried the company through some lean years. He developed relationships with sponsors, main-eventing shows then wining and dining night after night to connect prominent business partners with New Japan. Now, as the company makes strides toward establishing itself across North America, Tanahashi knows he has one more run of carrying it. That run began with his incredible G1 performance, and, if he has his way, will pick up more momentum in a world title match against Kenny Omega. At Wrestle Kingdom in the Tokyo Dome. For his IWGP heavyweight championship, with the right to the main event MSG show on the line.
And he would not have it any other way.
“I made a giant step toward proving I am the best in the world by winning the G1,” said Tanahashi. “This is the third time I have proved that in the G1, and now I have one more time to prove I am the best. One more time to show I am the greatest.”
Tanahashi-Omega is a clash of champions, a stark contrast of styles. New Japan’s past battling its present to determine its future, a future that Tanahashi already has mapped out.
“I am the past, I am the present, I am the future,” said Tanahashi. “I am the one to lead this company.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.