Tama Tonga: New Japan Pro Wrestling star talks upcoming tournament - Sports Illustrated

Tama Tonga Looking to Prove He Can Win As a Singles Competitor

A featured part of Bullet Club, Tama Tonga is a six-time IWGP tag champ. The New Japan Cup in the USA tournament gives him the chance to build genuine momentum to his singles career. He talked with Justin Barrasso about the tournament, Jon Moxley and Bullet Club.
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New Japan Pro Wrestling kicked off its New Japan Cup in the USA tournament last night. Airing on the New Japan World streaming service, the tourney takes place on Friday nights throughout the month of August as part of the new NJPW STRONG program.

Friday’s results included victories from Tama Tonga, Kenta, Jeff Cobb and David Finlay. The semi-finals are next week, and the winner of the eight-man tournament receives a future shot at the IWGP United States Championship, currently held by AEW world champ Jon Moxley.

Tonga defeated Brody King in the opening round. It was a physical match, and he now advances to a semi-final matchup next Friday against David Finlay. Both Tonga and Finlay are the sons of legendary wrestling tough guys in, respectively, Haku and Fit Finlay.

A featured part of Bullet Club, Tonga is one of New Japan’s stars. He is a six-time IWGP tag champ, but this tournament gives him the chance to build genuine momentum to his singles career. The upcoming match with Finlay is especially interesting as the two have met in tag matches, most notably at this past year’s Wrestle Kingdom, and both men have a lot to prove in singles competition.

Tonga spoke with Sports Illustrated on Saturday to discuss the tournament, the possibility of a match with Moxley and the overall status of Bullet Club in New Japan.


Justin Barrasso: Your match against Brody King in the New Japan Cup USA tourney was a wonderful opportunity to showcase your abilities as a singles wrestler. You are primarily known as a tag team wrestler. For you, if you plan on pivoting to a singles career, is there an extra point to prove in this tournament?

Tama Tonga: I’ll be honest, after everything that has happened this year, and thinking about everything I’ve accomplished as a tag team wrestler, this tournament has made me think a lot about being a singles competitor. I never gave it that much consideration before. You’ve seen my G1 matches [filled with outside interference] in the past where I’ve thrown a lot of tournaments away, but this year has really made me do a turnaround and reconsider.

I’ve accomplished being IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champion six times. I think I’ve got my fill of that. I’ve been off for nearly half of the year, and I’m excited to be back. This tournament has given me a taste of being a singles competitor.

Do I need to prove something? Maybe. Maybe I do. I’ve proven myself in a tag team. Now I need to see what I can do as a singles competitor.

Barrasso: David Finlay is a tremendous talent and someone you have worked with before in big tag matches. What do you respect most about him? And is there a different level of respect since you were both raised by a father who was one of the industry’s toughest wrestlers?

Tonga: I have a lot of respect for David. We have a lot in common. We both came up through the New Japan system. That whole system is built on respect. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do together in singles competition.

Barrasso: You live in Florida but traveled to California for the NJPW STRONG show. What was it like traveling during the pandemic? And what were the safety precautions New Japan took to ensure the safety of its wrestlers?

Tonga: This was my first flight during the pandemic. I was very wary of it, but everything was good. There was social distancing when we boarded the plane. And the New Japan safety precautions in LA put me at ease, with the testing and social distancing. That gave me even more confidence in our company.

We social-distanced in the locker room, everyone was separated, and the ring was sprayed down after every match, The safety precautions definitely put me at ease.

Barrasso: There has been much talk on social media about your new clean-shaven look.

Tonga: I saw that, too [laughter]. I’ve got all these people clowning me on social media, I love it.

Barrasso: You had the beard for so long, so your new look really stands out. What led to shaving off the beard?

Tonga: The coronavirus and the year 2020 made me shave off my beard. I had too much time at home. I’ve been working out, making sure I was prepared physically and endurance-wise, but I took it a step further. I thought about cutting my hair, but then I thought, let’s start with the beard.

There’s been a pretty big reaction so far, but it’s good to have a change. That’s what I needed. It was time to do something different.

Barrasso: In addition to being AEW’s world champion, Jon Moxley also holds the IWGP US belt. What about that match would you relish having back in Japan?

Tonga: I’m not too eager about it. If you’re not the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, then what are you? You’re last. That’s the way I look at it, everything else is second place.

That’s the way I’ve looked at it my whole career. The tag team championship belt, the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship, that’s first place among tag teams. Anything else is second place. So if I’m going to be a singles competitor, then my only goal is to be the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. This tournament, to me, is to get my feet wet and start sharpening my skills to go after the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. That is my only goal.

Barrasso: I know you’re on different continents, but Bullet Club knows no boundaries. What did you think of Evil joining Bullet Club and becoming IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion? And is the next chapter of the LIJ-Bullet Club story going to see a member of Bullet Club defect to LIJ?

Tonga: Let’s handle that first part of your question. Evil is extremely talented and versatile, and I’m very happy he is double champ. He earned his shot.

Whether someone defects from Bullet Club to LIJ, I guess anything is possible. But man, you’re a dead man if you defect out [laughter].

Barrasso: On the subject of Bullet Club additions, Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson are headed back to New Japan. Were they misused in WWE? And do you think we could see Anderson have a run with the IWGP title?

Tonga: Were they misused in WWE? Maybe. I didn’t really keep up with what was going over there, but they had WrestleMania matches and they were making a lot of money. I was happy to see them on that platform, so it’s all about perspective. I think they did a great job and they got that money. Now how it ended is very questionable. That sucked.

I’m happy to see what they’re doing in Impact, and I want to see them back in Japan. Anderson is very capable as a singles competitor. I’ve seen what he can do. In 2012, he was in the G1 Finals. The man is so very talented, he can do anything.

Barrasso: What can we expect to see next Friday in your match against David Finlay?

Tonga: We’re still getting our feet wet, but this is a match to look forward to. I have a lot of respect for Finlay, and there is a lot for each of us to prove.

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