My translation of an interview with Ibushi Kôta that appeared in KAMINOGE vol 81 on 9/19 2018 and was held on 8/18.
As always, my annotations are in , and annotations by the original publication are in ().
Original text and images © THE PEHLWANS.
Note: pull quotes may differ from actual answers. This is part of the editing in the original.
The True Identity of a Fanatic
The theme of this special topic is simple.
Why are we fanatics?
How is our fanaticism born?
Pondering the importance of technical skill and physical skill through a first-time experience of being set up in wrestling
“I think no one who works in expressive arts can do everything by calculation. What really captures the attention of the audience is ‘raw emotion’. That’s what pro wrestling is. And in order to express that explosive emotion, you also need high athleticism.” -Ibushi Kôta (pro wrestler)
“After the match was over, for a moment, Tanahashi tugged at my arm. I think that was him telling me to join him.”
Congratulations on making it through the G1 CLIMAX.
Ibushi: Ooh, thank you. I’m really exhausted.
I bet. This year you finished second, so [that’s why].
Ibushi: No, no, you know, I’m really exhausted (laughs). It’s been a week since the G1 ended, but my body isn’t healing at all.
The physical damage [won’t heal]?
Ibushi: Yeah. Mentally, I don’t know if I’ve been toughening up in my own way or if I was just lucky, but throughout this G1, I didn’t break once. I don’t know though if that was because I had a personal goal for myself that I had to make it in one go.
What do you mean by “in one go”?
Ibushi: There were the finals too, but [it’s] something like, I had one more chance to leave behind an [impression] of who Ibushi Kôta is. That was a strain on my nerves the entire way through, and I think now that [the G1] is over, I’m still on edge [because of that]? I guess I’m still not breaking mentally, but my body sure is damaged, and it really won’t heal. The damage still lingers since the day after the last day [of the G1]. I’m hurting everywhere.
Have you ever had this level [of injury] in the past?
Ibushi: Never. It’s a first time experience for me. I think that in wrestling, you really can’t capture the audience unless you put your body at risk [at least] to a certain degree, or rather, they can’t get emotionally involved [unless you do]. Tanahashi (Hiroshi) and Kenny (Omega) are having this crazy war right now between them revolving around their ideologies.
Your physical damage is related to that too, right?
Ibushi: Right. Kenny belongs to the athletic camp, in other words, [he says that] “wrestling is putting your body at risk until you reach your limit”. But for Tanahashi, it’s different. [He says] that even if you don’t do that, there is still a frenzy that’s created, you can still incite a fever [in the fans], you can still touch hearts and souls. He is of the opinion that wrestling doesn’t just mean putting your body at risk. But I don’t think either of them is right or wrong.
You mean it all depends on the individual’s values and priorities.
Ibushi: Yes. But if I ask myself right now which one I [agree with], and I really look at it, I think a lot of fans are probably in Kenny’s camp, style-wise. Like, [they think,] “Kenny wrestles by abusing his body and putting out his skills as an athlete, his movement skills and all that to their fullest. That’s the same as Ibushi’s style”. But I think both ways. I understand both the Kenny Omega view and the Tanahashi Hiroshi view. But I also in part don’t agree with either view.
You understand both of them, but neither of their views on wrestling is the same as yours.
Ibushi: They’re not. I don’t belong to either style, I think. So then even if you ask me, “Well, which one are you?”, it’s neither.
I see. However, I think, looking at it impartially, that there is a tendency to perceive yours and Kenny’s style as being in the same category.
Ibushi: Yeah. When I’m asked to comment on that, I think what the fans are saying is that I’m probably on the Kenny side of things. We’re different in this, and there is another clear line between me and Kenny. So, I lost against Tanahashi in the finals. I got the one, two, three, and I seriously collapsed in the ring for about five minutes. Even for a while after Tanahashi’s second, Shibata (Katsuyori), put him on his shoulders. My second, Kenny, came in at that point, but at that time, for a moment, Tanahashi tugged at my arm. I’m a bit curious what the meaning of that was.
Hmm. If you had to analyze it, what would you say [was the meaning]?
Ibushi: Intuitively, I would say maybe he was telling me to join him.
Ibushi: I don’t know whether Kenny was telling him to back off or not, because I lay there collapsed and I haven’t watched the footage back, but somehow I thought it felt like Kenny had threatened Tanahashi. I didn’t see [them] because I was stretched out on the mat, but I could tell that my arm was being pulled one way, and that Kenny was there at my side, when he was moving and things like that. Like that I could feel the atmosphere of them fighting each other, Tanahashi [being like,] “Your place is at my side”, and Kenny [being like,] “No, I won’t allow that”.
Ibushi: Then Kenny whispered to me, “What should I do?”, I said, “Oh, you can leave the ring now. Thank you” and then I stood up and faced Tanahashi. At that time, I had only three options: shake his hand, hug him, or slap his face.
In that scene, you expressed your thoughts and feelings at that time, [and also] your future intentions.
Ibushi: However when we stood face to face, I interpreted that as him asking me for the answer to the question whose side I was on. Like [he was saying,] “Whose side are you on? Tell me.” However, and I said this before too, but I’m on neither ideology’s side. So I think that’s why I did a gesture [as if to] say, “I’m not on either [side]”.
“In the moment that all four of us, including the seconds, stood in the ring, I thought, ‘Huh? Oh, this is how it’s going to be…’ We were like foreign invaders.”
You lifted up both hands, didn’t you? So that’s the kind of back and forth dialogue you had in the ring, [I see].
Ibushi: Perhaps the fans who saw that scene perceived it as meaning “He didn’t shake hands with Tanahashi. Ibushi has taken the next step”, or like, “Tanahashi and Ibushi’s relationship has progressed to the next phase”. But I lifted both hands to mean that, [when it came to] being asked whose side I was on, that I was on neither side. So it’s not like I’m in Kenny’s camp or anything.
Wow. So you had such a fight in the ring after the match, and without either party using words to boot. And in just a few seconds you had to decide on your intention and answer.
Ibushi: I was nervous and afraid too, though. I couldn’t believe such a thing was happening inside the ring. Well, wrestling has those scary and enthralling parts to it too.
It’s scary and enthralling. I think though in wrestling, there are many such shoot situations in which a mental back-and-forth is going on. And the fact that the crowd probably doesn’t understand the real meaning behind those back-and-forths is also precisely [what] shoot [is], right?
Ibushi: I guess so. But this time, I felt that during our entrances too. I think everyone, not just Tanahashi but all the fans too, knew that Kenny would be my second. But I didn’t think for a second that Tanahashi would bring Shibata along as second.
What did you think when you saw that?
Ibushi: I thought, “Oh, that’s what you’re doing”. And I also thought it was just like [Tanahashi]. But in the moment that all four of us, including the seconds, stood in the ring, I was like, “Huh?” I wondered if this was maybe turning into New Japan versus the not-New Japan. I thought, “Oh, this is how it’s going to be…”
In other words, you mean the setting of the match had turned into the homegrown New Japan talent versus the outsiders?
Ibushi: Yep. During the entrances, it stopped at [me being] surprised, but the moment we stood in the ring, it wasn’t a place anymore to fight in the finals of the G1, it was a place where we were completely opposing forces. Like [me and Kenny] were invading enemies. I was like, “Oh, I see what this scheme is”. I think I was set up a bit.
What a story.
Ibushi: But [I was] like, even so, I have to win. I felt like I had to win as the wrestler Ibushi Kôta, including my performance in the match and the support of the crowd. I carried those feelings with me, or like, they ended up giving me energy. Like I was motivated. To be honest, at that moment, I didn’t think about Kenny anymore.
You mean you [felt like you] had to win the match as a wrestler, alone?
Ibushi: To me, Tanahashi and Shibata are not enemies. I see them as something like my seniors. Even though I faced them both not [thinking of them as enemies], in that moment I did feel like it was me versus Tanahashi Hiroshi, me versus Shibata Katsuyori. Like I was fighting both on my own. [It felt] like I had to win no matter what, no matter what atmosphere [they had created].
When you look back on the journey to the finals this year, then honestly speaking, you predicted that the support of the crowd and the expectations for the finals would be 70% for you and 30% for Tanahashi before the match, right?
Ibushi: Honestly speaking, yes. I think almost through Shibata as second, that became fifty-fifty, or in fact 30% for me and 70% for Tanahashi. Just like that.
In that case you had to take that back through your own abilities in the match.
Ibushi: I had to. This year’s B Block was brutal, and of course A Block was brutal too, but I gave it everything I had, every single match. So it all was definitely meant to lead to the final Budôkan. I had confidence until the day of [the match] that the fans would definitely recognize me and support me if I made it that far, if I made it until the end. But with that entrance [with Shibata], in an instant, I was like, I’m screwed! I was outdone by something Tanahashi Hiroshi’s mind for wrestling [had come up with]. Including when I was thinking like, are you [really] doing this, I knew I had been set up. But even so, I was confident that I could take it back in the match.
I’m talking to you as one of the persons involved in that, but I think the feeling that wrestling isn’t necessarily that kind of peaceful place came across for the fans too, right?
Ibushi: It probably did, yeah.
Those watching can tell just from seeing that tension that something is happening, that you’re fighting about something, even though they don’t know what’s going to happen.
Ibushi: I think they could tell. Kenny was putting on an aura like that too. You could see on his face that he was overwhelmed by it. As someone who was directly involved in the match, I had no choice but to [wrestle in it], but he looked like he was giving up (laughs).
He was throwing in the towel (laughs).
Ibushi: That’s when I put [him] behind me. After I saw Kenny’s expression, I [knew] it would be one versus two from thereon. I didn’t have a single moment where [he] was sticking [in my mind] because he was in my corner. It felt like fighting alone against two, the whole way through. That’s why the finals were so crazy. It had been a long time since I had felt like that. No, it was maybe the first time.
Do you think this can in other words be called “being set up”?
Ibushi: Kinda, yeah.
Was that the first time you had been set up [like that]?
Ibushi: I think it was.
So this was Tanahashi setting you up with his ideology, which is the exact opposite of the athletic [style of] wrestling, right?
Ibushi: It’s the [style of] wrestling that [aims to] evoke emotion, yeah. I think [Tanahashi] thought that, he has a connection with Shibata, and his opponent Kenny has a connection with me, and so if he mixes those two, it’ll be an explosion [of emotion]. I was amazed by how completely I was swallowed up by that. On the other hand, I also recognized [what he was doing]. The reverse of it was that I [was surprised] he was doing that, and that he was right, this is great, this will [get the fans] red-hot. That’s something that I still don’t have. I still don’t have that ability, that mind to think [like] that about wrestling.
“The risk in MMA for the opponents to break apart is high, but in wrestling we really get fucked up too. Physically and mentally.”
You still don’t have it [?]
Ibushi: I didn’t have a mind [for wrestling] like that. I had always thought about my wrestling only, or rather I have this absolute confidence that [my wrestling] is what happens in the ring. That I will definitely get [the crowd] fired up with the match. So I had never thought about firing them up with things outside of the matches. I have never thought about like, if we have this scene where I bring this person along, that will create this kind of atmosphere and the match will be seen like this, and such. But Tanahashi thinks about everything, including that. I think what I lost against was that part.
You thought that the matches themselves are the very place that constitutes expressing your wrestling, and that this is how wrestling should be.
That is to say, [something] that leans a bit more towards the physical or athletic side.
Ibushi: Exactly. I was led to believe that [before]. So this is to say, me and Kenny lost. The athletic [style] of wrestling lost at that point in time. So I’m at this point where I’m not affirming everything about the athletic [style] of wrestling. Because I recognize the wrestling that Tanahashi’s side thinks about as well. On that day, the athletic-[style] wrestling was utterly defeated. I was outdone by the wrestling that you do in your head.
Incredible. Wrestling is really scary.
Ibushi: There are a lot of different fights to fight. It’s unbelievably exhausting (laughs). I have done both, not to the extreme, but to a certain degree, [and] I know that the risk in MMA for the opponents to break apart is high, but in wrestling we really get fucked up too. Physically and mentally.
Ibushi: So then, when it got down to this, I think [who is] upset the most is Kenny’s [way of] thinking. Because he is 100% in the athletic [style] camp.
You mean that Tanahashi Hiroshi went ahead with his complete denial of Kenny’s [style] of wrestling.
And he also on top of that tugged at your arm [as if to] say, “Ibushi, come here”.
Ibushi: It really was [just] for a moment, but that’s how I interpreted it. I haven’t asked him, so I don’t know, but [it felt like] he was saying, “Your wrestling philosophy is over here, with me, right?” So the hand that Tanahashi extended towards me at the very end, I felt like that was [his] final warning: “This is it”. With his hand, I felt him saying, “Of course I’m not going to say this with words anymore. This confirmation should have ended way earlier. This is your last [chance].”
And then you declared that you won’t join him.
Ibushi: I decided in the span of one or two seconds [to say] no. I thought, I’m not on either [side]. Like, “I have both ideologies [within me], but I’m my own.” That’s what that move from me was. That itself is all real.
Scary. Wrestling, and Tanahashi both. I want to come at this from a bit of a different angle. I think your style is that you lean a bit towards the athletic [camp], you wrestle in a fascinating way by using your high athletic abilities and physicality to their fullest extent, and for the enjoyment of the crowd you’re a bit reckless too. Add to that the so-called “losing of your temper”, or what everyone calls “going into murder mode”, but I want to know how you, adding those elements into your wrestling, are able to have your matches in a detached, calm manner.
Ibushi: Oh, this. Everyone has it the wrong way. I read Tanahashi’s [backstage] comments for this [match] too, and I thought, oh, he has it wrong. I never truly snap or awaken [that murder side] outside of the matches with Nakamura Shinsuke. I have never [snapped or awoken that] once outside of the two matches with Nakamura.
Ibushi: But everyone is like, “Oh, Ibushi snapped!”, “Ibushi is going murder mode!” That’s part of my style of wrestling. I don’t [really] get mad or murderous. So when Tanahashi in his comments said something like, “I’m always awake. I’m always angry, so this doesn’t work against me”, I [thought,] “I’m not [always in that mode]!” (laughs). So it was like, “What the hell is he on about?”. He missed the point with what he was saying.
Tanahashi was saying that, because he’s always already in murder mode, no one sees the moment when he switches from [not angry to angry], right?
But you were saying that no, no, I’m always turned off]? (laughs)
Ibushi: I’m always turned off. If anything, always becoming turned on would be more exhausting (laughs).
I don’t know about that argument (laughs).
Ibushi: No, no, not in a weird way; I think that only turning [that mode] on when you’ve seriously lost your temper lets you have a better performance [in a match]. But for this match I really wasn’t in murder mode at all, so I wasn’t turned on. I think that’s where the disparity is.
You mean the only time when you were [really in] murder mode was in the two matches with Nakamura.
What’s that state like? You have to really get into the mood at some point, right?
Ibushi: There’s a part where I tried to lose my temper or awaken [that side] before the match. I got into those feelings in earnest. Then I truly got into the [angered] mode.
“In the same way as when talking to someone, if I increase [my energy], the opponent also follows suit. Whether they try to unconsciously align their wavelengths [with mine], they end up in the same mood as me.”
Is there an autosuggestion-like aspect to this?
Ibushi: First, I came to see everything as two images.
Ibushi: This isn’t a joke, my field of vision became two images. The only [time] I have ever seen it like this was in the matches with Nakamura. I’ve only ever seen two screens [in my head like that] during the two matches we had, the first during the G1 in 2013, and the other in 2015 at the Tôkyô Dome. In other words, normally, my point of view is from me looking at Nakamura. I saw two images [in my head] at the same time, [one of which was] from a [different] angle [than that], just like I was looking down from the second floor balcony in Budôkan. One screen was of me facing Nakamura, and the other was from far away, so I [could see] how I was wrestling him.
What, you were able to have a real-life bird’s eye view?
Ibushi: Yeah. So because I became really calm and detached when I got into the bird’s eye state, I think that’s the moment in which I could put on the best possible things [as a wrestler]. I probably saw everything as two images because I was so [into it] that my brain was releasing [all these hormones]. I really was very detached, and I saw [everything] clearly. And I saw mine and Nakamura’s movements in slow motion. That’s why I was able to do every move so precisely. That awakened state was something very remarkable for me. Everyone calls it [me] “having snapped” or “gone into murder mode” even outside of those two matches, but it never goes that far.
Ibushi: Even the commentators often say “Ibushi’s going nuts!” or whatever, but I’m not snapping. You don’t get into that awakened mode that easily, and there isn’t a guy alive in this world who is always in murder mode. Because the next day after you went nuts [like that], your body and your mind are fucked up.
So in other words, the two matches you had with Nakamura Shinsuke were the matches you could fight in the most detached way.
Ibushi: Exactly. That’s why I remember how the match went most vividly too.
Does detached mean that you create everything in a calculated way, all the scenes the fans are seeing from the moment you make your entrance, to the match, and the scenes after the match; for example, the expressions on your face, your mannerisms, poses and so on?
Ibushi: Oh no, what I learned from years of doing this is that, when I’m serious, the fans also become serious. They really understand. They get it.
Ibushi: So before matches, I focus my mind to truly be serious. I try going with my true emotions. Because this, I guess, emotional energy is felt by the fans, I’m serious even during my entrance, and you’re seeing Ibushi Kôta put on a serious expression because I am serious. If you fake this, [they’ll] absolutely know. Like, “Oh, he’s pretending to look serious.” That’s why I’m serious before the match starts. [I go into the match] just as it is.
You come in after heightening your feelings to their maximum.
Ibushi: So, I don’t know if I might be more nervous than other people because of this, or maybe I’m more focused, I don’t know.
However, for wrestling, you need to have an opponent there. You know that your emotional energy is different when you square off against each other, or when you come into contact with one another, right? What do you do in the case that there is a gap between your energy?
Ibushi: If I increase [my energy], then the opponent also follows suit. It’s the same as when talking to someone. (in a low voice) If I for example talk in a tone like this, then I think you as the listener also get less excited. (suddenly raising his voice) But if I increase [my energy], then yours is increased too, isn’t it?
You’re right (laughs).
Ibushi: It’s the same [with wrestling.] If I come in with an excited [energy] and I wait [for the opponent] with an excited [energy], then, whether they try to not let on that they’re being taken in by this or try to unconsciously align their wavelength [with mine], they end up in the same mood as me. From what I know, Ishii (Tomohiro) has the highest voltage out of all, so matches with Ishii always turn into the wrestling he [wants to] do.
Interesting! In other words, Ishii is better than anyone else at lifting his spirit, and he also drags the energy of his opponents with him?
Ibushi: Ishii is so good. I’m the type who doesn’t get taken in [by the feelings of the opponent], the type who pulls his opponent into his own mood, but only Ishii manages to pull me in. Before I know it, in the middle of a match I’ll be on the same wavelength [as him]. Then I become unable to wrestle my way, and [I] wrestle in Ishii’s world. I wonder why that is, because of the difference in our careers, or what.
That’s all very interesting.
Ibushi: To sum it up, I would argue that for wrestling, you need an energy where your feelings are at their absolute highest, and also add to that athletic movements. You also need athletic ability to express those things. So between Tanahashi’s and Kenny’s philosophies, I’m neither.
You think that one should have both on hand.
Ibushi: Yes. My ideology is that wrestling is impossible unless you have both. Tanahashi hasn’t said this himself, but he has to think too that it would probably be better to have both. Kenny should also have both to a certain degree, but what he’s always saying is “Wrestling is what the athletes do”. I don’t know what either of them really thinks, but as far as the content of their [backstage and interview] comments go, I’m of the opinion that I’m with neither of them.
Wow, I underestimated [you].
Ibushi: What do you mean? (laughs)
To tell you the truth, with everything said and done, I thought you were doing everything and all by calculation.
Ibushi: Oh, you mean calculated wrestling?
I don’t know what “calculated wrestling” means (laughs). It’s not by manipulating people, but you’re very good at brainwashing [them] in your everyday life, I think.
Ibushi: Well, okay, okay. I can’t deny that (laughs).
So you only have zombie-like people left around you (laughs).
Ibushi: ‘Cause I’m brainwashing them, yeah (laughs).
“I was watching only martial arts and [videos of real] fights because I want that energy. If I watched wrestling I would probably get worse at it.”
Like I said, I had thought you were leaning towards an approach for your wrestling that’s based on a more psychological, scientific foundation. That you were [thinking] you could prove everything you were doing scientifically.
[I had thought] that you were for example [saying] about love, that there are definitive scientific explanations for how people fall in love and so on. You struck me as that type of genius.
Ibushi: Yeah, okay, that’s what you mean. Oh, okay, okay. No, I’m not like that. I do have that kind of skill in different aspects.
But you’re not using it in wrestling?
Ibushi: No, you can’t use it in wrestling.
Ibushi: I think no one who works in expressive ways, not just in wrestling, can do that. Unless everything that comes from people who [perform] expressive [art] is real, they won’t be able to draw in [the audience]. I don’t know, maybe there are people who are like, “Oh no, I know what I’m doing, I can calculate everything, how the [crowd] is going to get excited when I do this [and so on]”. But I have done a lot of different things until now, and what really captures the attention of the audience is raw emotion. My conclusion is that I think that’s what wrestling is. If you told me to “brainwash” [people], then somehow I would be able to do that (laughs). But you can’t do that in wrestling.
It doesn’t apply to wrestling.
Ibushi: It doesn’t. But [when I] think about what might I excel at, I have some confidence that I can create situations in which I can face wrestling with my true emotions. I think I’m able to do that because I’ve made a habit out of watching a lot of different martials arts and watching videos of [real] fights and such online.
[Those became your] input.
Ibushi: I just fell into watching those over and over. I was wondering why I was watching martial arts, thinking that it was maybe simply because it’s interesting, but that wasn’t really it.
You mean actually you watched them in order to receive that pumped up energy.
Ibushi: I get pumped up [from watching them]. I think I watch amateur [MMA] more than professional martial arts because of that aspect. They are showing you their real, raw emotions, right? So I don’t care about age, I watch older guys doing martial arts too because [of that]. They are brimming with raw emotion. They have neither technique nor stamina, but they are seriously giving it their all.
Isn’t that something that you lose the more you face athletic competition in earnest? In your case that would be pro wrestling. On the other hand you can’t do that in wrestling, right? Having no technical skill, ignoring the pacing and fighting only with your feelings, and so on. However, what you mean is that you want those feelings [from the MMA videos] only.
Ibushi: I want those, yeah. I want to receive [those feelings] from [watching the videos].
And so then you receive your input from a lot of different places, and output them in your matches. You want to convey [those feelings] through wrestling.
Ibushi: I think about nothing else. Suddenly I was watching only MMA and [real] fights. Why? I was like, wouldn’t I get better at wrestling if I watched wrestling? But I don’t want to watch wrestling. It’s different. If I watched wrestling I would probably get worse at it. That’s why I shouldn’t watch it.
I see. Slowly everything’s coming together. In your everyday life, you put yourself through an unbelievably hard training, a training that thoroughly tempers your physicality as an athlete. That means when you express a wrestling full of explosive emotions, you can’t do that unless you have that physicality, that [otherwise] your body will be a waste, right?
Ibushi: Correct. For expression, that degree of ability is necessary. That’s why [you have people] who are impressive physically only, but they can’t wrestle. Why, no matter how many amazing Olympic athletes you bring along, that doesn’t make them good wrestlers.
You mean it’s not because they use different types of muscles or anything like that?
Ibushi: Right. Wrestling too is about the feeling of, “Let’s do it!”
A while ago, Antonio Inoki said something similar when [we] interviewed him. [He said,] “For example, when I hear that people are dying in Iraq, or that Africa is plagued by famine, I gather all that anger and resentment in the world in my brain, and I put it into my fist.”
Ibushi: Oh, I see.
That’s Inoki’s input [for his wrestling].
Ibushi: That makes sense. That anger came across when you watched him wrestle.
You understand what Inoki is saying, right?
Ibushi: I do. I’m the same. Ah, is that how it’s coming together? Well, in the sense of a way of thinking, it’s not far from [mine]. Oh, I see.
[He means] that fighting isn’t [really about] the opponent.
Ibushi: Yeah. It’s not.
So, I wonder what Ishii is eating [as input]?
Ibushi: He certainly has to eat something in order to get like that. I’m a little bit curious about that (laughs). [But] what I meant before was, I had a great harvest in this G1. I had a lot of realizations. And some things I [realized] were a bit different.
What do you mean by different?
Ibushi: In the end, I think a part of me somewhere was leaning towards the athletic [style]. But I think in the middle [of the G1] I was able to modify that in my own way. And I feel like that was probably felt by the people who watched [my matches].