Hiroshi Tanahashi: Performing During Pandemic Would Be ‘Black Eye’ for Japanese Wrestling

The Week in Wrestling: why Hiroshi Tanahashi agrees with NJPW’s current hiatus, a conversation with the executive producer of “Dark Side of the Ring” and more.
Author:
Publish date:

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath-the-surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

Hiroshi Tanahashi: ‘To run events in the middle of a pandemic presents the wrong image of professional wrestling to society’

Hiroshi Tanahashi is one of the most decorated performers in all of professional wrestling. Known as “The Ace,” Tanahashi has been instrumental in the growth and resurgence of New Japan Pro Wrestling for the past 21 years.

Tanahashi has represented the company on eight separate occasions as its IWGP heavyweight champion, oozing charisma and captivating audiences with an in-ring brilliance that continues to draw new fans. His electric display of the craft was felt this January in his Wrestle Kingdom classic with Chris Jericho, though perhaps not as strongly as it was the year before in the main event against Kenny Omega.

Tanahashi’s climb to superstardom did not come easily, especially considering when he broke into New Japan. At the turn of the century, it appeared the company's brightest days were well in the past. Two decades later, New Japan is now more robust than ever, and there is no argument that Tanahashi played a significant role as the face of the company.

“New Japan Pro Wrestling is my home and my family,” says Tanahashi, whose answers were translated from Japanese. “They gave me a chance when I had no future, and without this company, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

While Tanahashi will forever be remembered for his work inside the ring, some of his greatest achievements have taken place away from it.

For Tanahashi, the best way to represent the company amid the spread of COVID-19 has been to step away. New Japan is the most prominent wrestling organization in the world that has chosen to suspend operations, eschewing empty arena events and last running a show in February.

Even with Japan's easing restrictions as the number of coronavirus infections there decreases, Tanahashi stresses that the best choice is to continue to proceed with caution, leading to a more sustainable system once New Japan returns.

“The wrestling business is in an extremely difficult situation,” says Tanahashi. “After all, we are athletes in a contact sport and we perform in front of packed crowds. That’s a recipe for disaster right now. It’s hard to say when exactly we’ll have matches again, but I hope in the meantime wrestlers look after themselves, stay in top shape and keep fans hungry to see us when we can come back.”

The wrestling business in Japan operates in a far different manner than in the United States. Vince McMahon has built WWE into a worldwide powerhouse with an old-fashioned capitalistic approach, while New Japan has its own methods of success.

The contrast across continents has been visible throughout the pandemic. Wrestlers from promotions across Japan met with government official (and former New Japan pro wrestler) Hiroshi Hase to discuss the future of pro wrestling amid the dangers of COVID-19, using the opportunity to request coronavirus testing kits and compensation for lost pay.

As a star for New Japan, Tanahashi has made it his responsibility to stand up for all the wrestlers.

“There isn’t a governing body for Japanese pro wrestling,” says Tanahashi. “As such, we can’t necessarily enforce cancelations. That’s been the responsibility of each company. But to run events in the middle of a pandemic presents the wrong image of professional wrestling to society and would deal a black eye to the industry that might still remain even after the pandemic ends.

“I thought it was important for us to come together, understand exactly what’s happening and do what’s right, even if that means returning to action after other pro sports.”

Eloquent, Tanahashi adds a unique presence to pro wrestling. But his original plans did not involve dragon sleepers or sling blades. He studied law at the prestigious Ritsumeikan University, and, had his baseball dreams become reality, High Fly Flow would exist only as three separate words.

“My dream growing up was to be a professional baseball player,” says Tanahashi. “I started playing baseball in elementary school and played up to high school, but was never successful. It seemed no matter how much I practiced, I wasn’t getting anywhere. Then, when I was in high school, I started watching pro wrestling on TV, and it seemed to come into my life at just the right moment. It made life a lot more enjoyable to live.”

Tanahashi offered a message of hope for those struggling due to the pandemic, words that will likely please those hungry for a New Japan return.

“Just imagine something for me,” says Tanahashi. “Imagine that this pandemic is behind us and wrestling is back. Imagine thousands of fans together, cheering on the wrestlers fighting in the ring. Imagine those wrestlers, giving it absolutely everything they have.

“That mental image alone is pretty motivating. So please everyone, take care of yourselves. Let’s get through this, and we’ll meet again with smiles on our faces someday soon.”

‘Dark Side of the Ring’ executive producer Evan Husney looks at the second season of the show

Dark Side of the Ring just completed its second season, wrapping up with a finale that drew the highest viewership and rating in show history.

Season 2 episodes included a harrowing look at the Chris Benoit murder-suicide, offering a different perspective of ECW legend New Jack, and a heartbreaking reflection of Owen Hart’s final days. Executive producer Evan Husney spoke with Sports Illustrated and addressed whether the show’s sophomore season met internal expectations.

“Setting out to do Season 2, we approached it as if there was never going to be another season,” says Husney. “We wanted to gain access to all the biggest stories and see what we could uncover. It’s been quite the ride, and I’m very proud of the work our team did to put this all together in eight and a half months.”

As a result of the pandemic, the Dark Side production team worked remotely on postproduction for the final three episodes. Remarkably, filming for the second season wrapped 48 hours before the province of Ontario was shut down, which was the location for some of the reenactments in “The Final Days of Owen Hart.”

“We just made it at the last possible minute,” says Husney. “We’re such sticklers for the quality and the aesthetic of our show, so I’m very grateful we were able to sneak everything in before we were forced to shut down.”

Though the show’s Dark Side title is appropriate, there are certainly moments that highlight the human side attached to wrestling and some of its uglier moments. Those moments were revealed throughout the series, within the heartbreak of Dino Bravo’s family and the quiet determination of Bart Gunn in “The Brawl for All” episode.

“This show, to me, is the human side of the ring,” says Husney. “It shows the people that are affected and the consequences. Family life is a big part of these stories, so the human stories adjacent to the larger stories are very important.”

Though hurdles still exist, Husney is optimistic for a third season of Dark Side.

“A third season is something everybody involved wants to do,” says Husney. “Vice wants to make a Season 3, we would love to see it happen, and we’re in those stages of conversation. Right now, there are just a lot of question marks about the future of production, and even the future of the world. Our show deals with a lot of travel, and we’d love to go international to places like Japan in Season 3, but there is a lot of uncertainty in terms of that.

“I can say that all parties want to see this happen, and there is no shortage of stories for us to cover. We’ve put a lot of thought into it already, and we’re getting ideas from people every minute on social media, which is awesome.”

Husney expressed gratitude to those who watched the show and the overwhelming support from viewers.

“I think about this all the time, it’s just awesome to see all the people who have embraced the show,” says Husney. “For me, I grew up as such a big fan of wrestling. I had action figures of all these guys. I remember exactly where I was during the Over the Edge pay-per-view when Owen Hart passed away. Then, 21 years later, to see Martha Hart’s strength, it’s just been an incredible experience from beginning to end.

“It’s been trending every week on Twitter, and we’re so grateful that everyone has embraced the show so much.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • The loss of Hana Kimura is devastating. At only 22 years old, the end to her life is another reminder of the torture that cyberbullying can cause.
  • Wrestling has endured a difficult week. Those looking to contribute to the memory of Shad Gaspard can purchase one of his Collar x Elbow shirts, where all proceeds go directly to his family.
  • On a lighter note, there were a few highlights from Monday’s Raw, which seemed far more electric with NXT talent in the crowd. Apollo Crews won the United States Championship, which is an honor and opportunity he has earned, and WWE is beginning to tap into the unlimited potential of Angel Garza, who stole a win from Kevin Owens. I’m also enjoying the build between Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley. But isn’t advertising the upcoming Edge–Randy Orton bout as “The Greatest Wrestling Match Ever” destined to lead to disappointment? 
  • Pardon My Take had an incredibly entertaining interview with the Undertaker, specifically about his fear of … cucumbers.
  • Who else would make the Kurt Angle brand of milk a necessity when food shopping? 
  • Sometimes, the best move for a promotion is simply locking up its up-and-coming stars, which MLW has done with Alex Hammerstone. 
  • Although, there is nothing quite like the excitement of a free-agent acquisition, which Impact Wrestling has accomplished—adding even more depth to its women’s division—with Deonna Purrazzo. 
  • I will be back this Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET with Raj Giri, the owner and heartbeat of Wrestling Inc., and the talented Jesse Collins for another Saturday Night’s Main Event watch-along, this time looking at the formation of the Mega Powers. I hope you can join us.
  • Clearly, there are some people who enjoy wearing a mask. 

Squared Circle Burger planning summer launch in West Virginia

Squared Circle Burger owner JL Kyle poses outside his restaurant

Squared Circle Burger is coming to West Virginia.

And the menu sounds incredible.

“The signature burger is going to be The Bruiser, dedicated to Bruiser Brody,” says JL Kyle, who is the owner and man behind the grill. “It’s going to be two grilled cheese sandwiches in place of the buns, and it will have bacon, cheese and burger slaw, which is basically coleslaw dressing except with iceberg lettuce, tomato, and onions mixed all together, on top.”

Kyle is turning frustration into opportunity. He was part of 200 people whose lab technician positions were eliminated at his former employer due to COVID-19-related layoffs, and there was no better time, he decided, to finally open a new wrestling-themed restaurant.

“I’ve wanted to open a restaurant for over 10 years, but I had a steady job and I never wanted to risk messing that up,” says Kyle. “Well, I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I know it’s a really hard time to try something like this, but I would rather try and fail than be an old man one day wondering what would have happened had I gave it a shot.”

Kyle, who also owns independent wrestling promotion International Combat Sports, is combining his love of wrestling with his joy of making burgers. He signed the lease at his restaurant, located on Campbells Creek Drive in Charleston, W. Va., this past Saturday, and he is ready to transform the restaurant into a wrestling destination.

“We’re going to have memorabilia hanging on the wall, watch parties for WWE and AEW, and we’ll even have wrestling legends come down for signings,” says Kyle, who is preparing for a mid-July opening. “And I’m thinking about getting the satin embroidered jackets made up, kind of like Ribera in Japan.”

The menu will be dedicated to the legends of wrestling.

“‘The Lariat’ is dedicated to Stan Hansen,” says Kyle. “That will have three two-ounce all-beef patties, onion rings, avocado, and barbecue sauce, and that’s going to be on Texas toast. And our challenge burger will be the Tombstone. That’s four two-ounce all-beef patties, bacon, cheddar, and burger slaw, and Carolina Reaper Puree on top. If you can finish the meal in 20 minutes without taking a drink, you get it for free. You get a T-shirt and your picture on the wall.”

Only a 10-minute drive away from the Charleston Civic Center, which is where WWE and AEW have performed, Kyle wants Squared Circle Burger to be a destination for wrestlers and wrestling fans.

“I’m also planning on having some free wrestling shows in the parking lot,” says Kyle. “I want to make it a stop for anybody who loves wrestling.”

Tweet of the Week

That finish to the Stadium Stampede match was incredible.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.