There is no place quite like Wrestle Kingdom for Hiroshi Tanahashi.
A staple of the event, the iconic Tanahashi defended the IWGP heavyweight championship at the very first Wrestle Kingdom in 2007. He headlined the next two years, including a seminal Wrestle Kingdom III main event against Keiji Muto. The past will meet the present later this week when Tanahashi again shares the ring with Muto at the third night of Wrestle Kingdom 16 on Saturday, a showdown pitting the best of New Japan Pro-Wrestling against the top of Pro Wrestling NOAH.
“It’s been a long time since that night,” says Tanahashi, who will tag with Kazuchika Okada against Muto and Kaito Kiyomiya. “I love that we get to do it again.
“At Wrestle Kingdom, I am always at my absolute best in that ring. I bring the highest of expectations, and I plan to live up to all of them.”
Tanahashi was also in a six-man tag on the opening night of Wrestle Kingdom. In a disqualification loss, he teamed with Rocky Romero and Ryusuke Taguchi against Bullet Club’s Kenta, Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo. On Night 2, Tanahashi seeks redemption in a no-disqualification match against Kenta, the reigning IWGP United States champion, who defeated him for the belt in November.
“I want to take the IWGP U.S. heavyweight championship back,” Tanahashi says. “Nothing’s set in stone yet, but my goal is to bring the belt back to the states.”
Tanahashi wrestled in America this summer, when he defeated Lance Archer to win the U.S. title in Los Angeles. Yet the pandemic is still ongoing, causing travel nightmares. Until he can return stateside, Tanahashi has a number of goals he wants to accomplish in Japan.
“For New Japan at large, I want us to put COVID in the rearview mirror and start growing again,” Tanahashi says. “For me personally, of course I want to be IWGP world heavyweight champion.”
Already an eight-time IWGP heavyweight champion, Tanahashi is incredibly close to a 10-peat. Kazuchika Okada just regained the title in a match against Shingo Takagi during the first night of Wrestle Kingdom, and Tanahashi plans to never drift too far from the world title picture. The 45-year-old can still work at an elite level, and he believes plenty of time remains in the era of the “Ace” age.
“As long as I am still active, I want to be at the very top of this business,” Tanahashi says. “But first I have to produce results and earn that spot.”
Tanahashi just celebrated his 22nd anniversary in pro wrestling. In a career full of defining moments, he remains hungry to produce more.
“That is what drives me,” he says. “Every moment has a place in my heart, but I want to create more back in a jam-packed arena, crying those happy tears.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.