My translation of a feature containing interview quotes on Ibushi Kôta that appeared in Kettle Vol 46 in December of 2018.

As always, my annotations are in [], and annotations by the original publication are in ().

Original text and images © Hakuhodo Kettle, Ohta Publishing Company.

Note: pull quotes may differ from actual answers. This is part of the editing in the original.

The Day the Solitary Researcher of Wrestling “Ships Out” the Fruits of His Labor

He researches and absorbs a variety of fighting styles in order to make pro wrestling more popular. The genius wrestler who remained buried beneath the god he respects and his long-time friend for life, lies ready in eager anticipation of the moment of his long-awaited explosion.

Overtaken by his friend and ally

“To be honest, it was a failure.”

So says Ibushi Kôta as he looks back on this year. The peerless genius wrestler even received an insistent offer from the world’ biggest wrestling promotion, WWE, after he left both New Japan and DDT in February of 2016. The following year, he returned to New Japan. On the Sapporo show, where the opener match was being held, he was welcomed back with loud cheers that he himself didn’t even foresee.

“It was shocking. I had thought that the New Japan fans had already forgotten about me, and that they would boo me, like, what’s this guy doing here now? There was a part of me that was scared of standing in the ring because of that, but I’m really happy that I was received like that by the crowd.”

Ibushi continued to elicit high expectations among the fans in New Japan, which had suffered in recent years from the coming and going of their top wrestlers, but in the crucial moments, he came up short. After finishing the G1 without advancing to the finals, in November he fought a losing battle in Ôsaka against the IWGP Intercontinental Champion, Tanahashi Hiroshi. This year, he revived the famous tag team the Golden☆Lovers (G☆L), together with his sworn friend Kenny Omega. And although he foretold he would take New Japan by storm at the beginning of the year, when compared to Kenny—who stays adorned with the belt of [Ibushi’s] dreams, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship—it must have been a rather dissatisfying time for him.

Ibushi says that he “felt like, in that sense, I had been overtaken by my partner Kenny”. Since their time in DDT, Kenny had originally been the one who had chased after Ibushi. But their roles were reversed when, during Ibushi’s absence, Kenny achieved a major breakthrough as the “Best Bout Machine”. A foreign wrestler who came to Japan as a nobody, made a friend for life in Japan, and climbed his way to the top of the world-famous New Japan [promotion]. And Ibushi felt that he had been swept up by such a moving story.

“The protagonist of that story is Kenny, after all. I’m just one of the characters in it. I had planned to connect that with my own story when we reunited as the G☆L. But things didn’t go as planned because it wasn’t accompanied by my personal results. [It was a] big [setback] when I lost against Tanahashi in the finals of the G1.”

With a chance to rise from the ashes during the G1, [Ibushi] collected one win after the other last year, as though he had seemingly broken out of his slump, and advanced into the finals for the first time in his life. Furthermore, the potentially bad [physical] condition of his opponent, Tanahashi Hiroshi, had been pointed out, and before the match, there were a lot of people who pushed the prediction that Ibushi would earn his first [G1] victory. If he could win, the possibility of facing the IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny in the main event of the Tôkyô Dome would at once rise up.

Many fans who had gathered to watch the finals in Nippon Budôkan [that day] had wanted to see the battle between friends on the grand stage to close off 2018. However…

I was set up in the ring!

Ibushi had weathered the long-awaited and hard bout with his tag partner and now second Kenny. But the moment Tanahashi entered the arena, the atmosphere changed at once. To everyone’s great surprise, Shibata Katsuyori was there, who had been absent for a long time [due to injury]. Both Tanahashi and Shibata are homegrown New Japan talent, and at one point they had stood in front of each other as rivals of the same generation, so when they stood next to each other, the constellation turned into “New Japan vs the Outside Invaders”. That’s what Ibushi felt in the ring.

“I was sure he had set me up. I think until then, there had been fans [in the venue] who cheered for me too. But Tanahashi took that all away at that point. In the end, I couldn’t turn the tide back in my favor at all. I felt how terrifying Tanahashi was in this match.”

In what could be seen as Kenny taking responsibility for that constellation, afterwards, a war of words unfolded between him and Tanahashi, as the two are set to face each other in the Tôkyô Dome [next year]. Ibushi, however, has put some distance between him and the combatants, and declares that he doesn’t fight under either banner.

“I understand what Kenny wants to do, and I also respect Tanahashi. Everyone looks at me, demanding to know which one I’m going to follow, but I ask you, why does it have to be one or the other? I’m both with and not with them. That’s what I’m sticking to.”

This “both with and not with them” part is emblematic of Ibushi’s Kôta multi-faceted appeal. While he has accumulated a large fan following as a refreshing and good-looking wrestler, he also has an unhinged side to him in the ring, where he does risky move after risky move, making one question if he is going to throw his life away. [And] while he reveals his story of friendship with Kenny, he also doesn’t hide his attitude towards Kenny’s opponent Tanahashi, whom he respects as his “god”. If you try to explain in one word to someone new asking what kind of person Ibushi Kôta is, one or the other aspect will be left out. His autobiography is actually sold in two volumes as well: “The Best” and “The Maddest”.

The reason he doesn’t unify his gimmicks

“I feel like I exist with two sides to myself, or as a mix of various things. I use that for different purposes, depending on the place and the mood. It’s always been like this since I was in school. I think in the end, I want to be liked by everyone, but through my devotion to wrestling, I have changed my way of thinking about it. I think it’s better for me to have this variety of sides [to myself] if I’m to make wrestling more popular among a lot of different people. If your character is only one [thing], then you’ll only get the people who like [that character] [to watch you], and nothing more. That’s why I want to create many entry points [for fans]. I think that you need to have various characters in order to spread wrestling far and wide.”

In contrast with Kenny, who says in interviews again and again that making the G☆L the best tag team is his dream, Ibushi declares that standing among the elite of tag teams only ranks third or fourth on his list of goals. After all, his biggest goal is to spread the sport of pro wrestling he is so endlessly fascinated by through the whole world. That’s why, as a “means to drag those who aren’t interested [in wrestling] into it and give them an opportunity to watch it”, he immersed himself in the unpredictable “anywhere wrestling” as well, in book stores and on camping grounds, and other places outside the ring.

A clash with the man he himself respects and calls his “god” in the finals of the G1. Although he felt that Tanahashi called him towards him after the match, he raised both hands in order to neither accept nor refuse, and just shook his head.

The one match that electrified even those who were watching wrestling for the first time

By bringing wrestling into the everyday landscapes, he forces those present to become interested in it. With this revolutionary concept, he swept like a hurricane [through wrestling]. But as he experienced more popularity, fans of said anywhere wrestling were born, and the situation turned upside down for Ibushi, as the next time he wrestled an anywhere match, he wrestled [only] for the fans of said anywhere wrestling.

What would become the one match closest to Ibushi’s ideals, was his fight with Nakamura Shinsuke in 2015 at the 1.4. Tôkyô Dome show. The match saw them both lose their memory amidst their fierce clashes and left a huge impact on a lot of the fans, despite the fact that it was not the main event, and there are a considerable number of people who rank it among both Nakamura’s and Ibushi’s best matches.

“That match wasn’t the result of a fateful connection or a point of conflict between me and Nakamura. Of course, it’s probably in the nature of wrestling [to have such fateful encounters], just like I was set up by Tanahashi in the G1. But the people who watched us fight for the first time don’t know why we’re opposing each other, right? Especially for the Tôkyô Dome shows, there are a lot of people who are watching wrestling for the first time, and it’s the perfect opportunity for me to make wrestling more popular. I think it really is the content of the match itself that I can bring to the first-time viewer.
I lost against Nakamura, but there is a part of me who came to think that maybe a series of events leading up [to the match] wasn’t necessarily a must-have for wrestling. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need a story, but that, when you wrestle for those who’re watching wrestling for the first time, a style like mine is better suited for that.”

Even now, the foreboding feeling that something is going to happen is swirling all around him

He attaches more importance to the contents of the match than the events leading up to it. Better said, he uses his physical abilities to their utmost limit, mounting attacks and taking overwhelming moves as well. In recent years, such a style has come to be called the “athletic style”, and Kenny Omega is held as one representative of it. The antithesis of this is a style that captivates the hearts of the fans in a narrative way, and is personified by Tanahashi Hiroshi.

“People think that my fighting style too, same as Kenny’s, falls on the side of “athletic wrestling”, but the athletic elements in my wrestling are nothing more than one of the means of expression for me. I don’t wish to criticize Tanahashi like Kenny, instead I want to absorb his style. In order to make wrestling more popular, I think it’s not ‘which one is right?’, instead, you get the most out of [when you think of] it as ‘I can do both’.“

He absorbs all sorts of ways of expression with a greedy appetite. This desire has also led him to establish the “Ibushi Wrestling Research Institute”, where he works on his research. And by absorbing both Kenny and Tanahashi’s styles, which could be argued to be [opposite] extremes, he finally feels like his research is coming to an end.

“I think it might soon be time for my research to end and for me to ship out [the results]. In 2019 I’m finally going to reveal the fruits of all my research.”

Furthermore, according to Ibushi, he “feels surrounded by possibilities of something new happening” in New Japan these days. You can see this, for example, in the fact that those wrestlers who are the same age [as Ibushi]—the members of the “class of ‘82” across a variety of promotions—one after the other moved on to thrive in New Japan. [Ibushi] has had a rivalry for a while with the New Japan dojo-grown Naitô Tetsuya, who is the same age, but on top of that, this year, the wrestlers of the “class of ‘82” who fought at the top of their promotions, Ishimori Taiji and Takagi Shingo, came into the New Japan ring.

“We definitely spoke about having a match together with everyone one day. But we never [imagined] that [this dream] would come true in New Japan…Right now, it’s just everyone assembled together [in the same promotion], but I feel like something new might happen here with that. It’s even possible that we’ll form a team next year. That’s how unpredictable New Japan is right now.”

All the more does [Ibushi] know the sense of crisis [he feels] when he is left out of this unfolding of events due to not being in the center of the maelstrom of unpredictability.

“I think I too am part of the unprecedented happenings in New Japan right now, causing surprising things that [have] everyone [go,] ‘What? This is happening?!’ Because for myself too, 2019 is going to be the year of do or die.”