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Q&A with KUSHIDA, on returning to NJPW and living abroad

1 year ago

Q&A with KUSHIDA, on returning to NJPW and living abroad

By: Thom Fain

It’s no secret that the Jr. Heavyweight men’s division remains an inspiration to every diehard wrestling fan on the Internet, and at the very top of the pecking order is KUSHIDA. Sorely missed by puroresu fans during his time in NXT, when word came out that the 39-year-old would be returning to the cerulean blue, it was yet another signal that New Japan Pro-Wrestling was on track to return to their pre-pandemic heights.

A timeless, inventive wrestler with just about every Japanese accolade dotted on his resume, KUSHIDA says there’s still a lot of work to be done to keep the “King of Sports” on top – especially with All Elite Wrestling (AEW) having brought so many fans on a wild ride from Daily’s Place in Jacksonville to worldwide recognition in recent years.

With members of The Elite dabbling in competition with New Japan, and with former Bullet Club members departing for AEW, KUSHIDA remains a critical bridge between Western wrestling promotions and Japanese. He’s studied hard to learn English, while relocating his life in Los Angeles – where he works with LA Dojo trainees after taking the mantle of senpai from current ROH Pure Champion Katsuyori Shibata.

As a mainstay on IMPACT wrestling, a NJPW player-coach, and a transcendent wrestler with many goals yet to be achieved, I sat down with KUSHIDA-san with the help of an interpreter to hear his thoughts on the future of puroresu and his journey so far.

Monthly Puroresu: First, I’m always curious – at what point did you become hooked on pro wrestling? Who inspired you inside the ring initially?

KUSHIDA: In 1990, my older brother, who is five years older than me, went to the Seiji Sakaguchi retirement event. He came back to home with excitement. He bought a Weekly Baseball Magazine and we read it together. This is when I met professional wrestling. After that, I fell in love with Jumbo Tsuruta’s beautiful backdrop and Keiji Muto’s good looks, and then started to research pro wrestling. Soon after, I found junior heavyweight wrestling interesting. I became obsessed with Jyushin Thunder Liger, Great Sasuke, Super Delfin & Ultimo Dragon.

People who inspired me inside the ring are Kazushi Sakuraba and TAJIRI. I’ve been loving watching death matches and Lucha Libre in FMW and WING. Of course, I love New Japan. But I basically love all pro wrestling.

KUSHIDA faces off against Jyushin Liger in 2016. c/o New Japan Pro-Wrestling

Monthly Puroresu: I appreciate the time you spent at WrestleCon. One interesting thing you mentioned is All Elite Wrestling’s entrance into the wrestling landscape. How do you perceive a good working relationship with them and NJPW moving forward?

KUSHIDA: It’s a good thing for both wrestlers, fans and business that wrestlers can interact with other wrestlers regardless of what promotion you are belong to. Partnership with AEW is also important for New Japan to keep developing in the overseas going forward.

Monthly Puroresu: Monthly Puroresu considers you one of the all-time great Jr. Heavyweights in the history of Japanese professional wrestling. Are you able to reflect on your legacy at all, or more focused on staying in the present moment?

KUSHIDA: I am impressed by myself how far I’ve come when I look back my journey as a wrestler. But I am always KUSHIDA who is 172cm tall man from a small town called Tokyo Ota-ku. I love pro wrestling and also love people involved in this business.

There aren’t many things we can do in our short lives. But in the meantime, I want to carry out a mission I was given or do the things I can do. I want to see the evolution of pro wrestling as long as I can. Reputation changes all the time, so I want to live my own life without being swayed by reputation.

Monthly Puroresu: What inspired you to return to NJPW, and how do you feel about the new group of Young Lions graduating?

KUSHIDA: It’s a big deal for me that New Japan has the LA Dojo in the US. This project is appealing to me and I see potential in it.

I cannot tell much about young lions as I didn’t go through the Young Lion system in New Japan, but I can give some advice on how to make money and survive in this business; pro wrestling is a survival. I can also give some advice on how to takedown an opponent and how to make an opponent tap out regardless of weight difference. I went to all over the place to acquire those skills. I am grateful to all the coaches who taught me. So I think I should return the favor.

Monthly Puroresu: Yes! TAJIRI-san taught you well. You’ve got an IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match coming up – can you give us a window into your preparation for a match with TJP & Francesco Akira?

KUSHIDA: I am frequently communicating with Kevin Knight and we come up with new combination moves every day. We are evolving now. We are the newest tag team in New Japan. I want to get the best out of Kevin. I’m thinking how I can do it every day.

Monthly Puroresu: I’m learning Japanese, with an eye towards moving to Tokyo. Conversely you’re relocating here in LA! Tell me about what it’s been like to learn English? And, do you prefer Florida or California?

KUSHIDA: When I was in WWE, I used to take an English class for 6 hours a week. We actually study English at an early age in Japan, and so we should be able to speak English well. But unfortunately, my English skills are not good enough. Well, I could understand English without subtitles if it’s the film “Back to the Future”.

Between Florida and California, California is a better place to live for me as a Japanese person. Because there are many supermarkets that sell Japanese foods. There is also a flight between California and Japan. But I also love Florida as the weather there is nice and it’s a peaceful place.

Monthly Puroresu: Recently you took Kevin Knight under your wing. He’s come a long way in such a short amount of time, with a limited number of televised wrestling experiences. What do you think he has left to reach his full potential?

KUSHIDA: I think experiences and the time we spend together are important. I expect to have more opportunities to wrestle as a tag team in Japan and worldwide. Even now, I’m looking forward to the time I’ll share with Kevin. I’m counting on his jump up which has infinite potential. I expect him to take me to the place where I haven’t seen before. Our goal for now is to get the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championships, and wrestle Motor City Machine Guns and beat them.

Monthly Puroresu: We spoke briefly at WrestleCon about that magical period in New Japan from around 2015 – 2019. Thinking back to launching NJPW World, and the global attention brought to your IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title matches, what memories stand out to you?

KUSHIDA: I had won the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship and won the Best of the Super Jr. tournament twice. I also won the Pro Wrestling World Cup promoted by WhatCulture Pro Wrestling and I have proved myself as the best wrestler in the world. I am proud of myself for those achievements. Certainly, the attention to New Japan from all over the world around 2019 had been amazing. However, the attention now is little lower than that time.

Wrestlers’ appeals and match qualities have not changed so I’m disappointed with the fact. I feel a sense of danger. I want New Japan to regain the momentum we had at that time. As I am living in the US, I am thinking what I can do to achieve this.

Monthly Puroresu: Is there a favorite venue or city you like to wrestle in outside of Japan?

KUSHIDA: Madison Square Garden. I’ve wrestled there once. I like Arena Mexico, too. I also have lots of memories in the old ECW Arena.

Monthly Puroresu: Keiji Muto recently retired from pro wrestling. Of course he was a huge innovator of Japanese wrestling offense, and helped popularize the handspring back elbow for instance. As he passes the torch to Tetsuya Naito and others, do you feel any responsibility to keep the spirit of puroresu alive and well?

KUSHIDA: I am who I am now because I have received a lot from senior wrestlers who have long careers. I am now aware that we are in a new phase of giving to the next generation what we have been given by the senior wrestlers. However, teaching wrestling is a difficult task. Therefore, I participate in the NJPW Academy as a coach but I’m communicating and learning wrestling with students there.

Monthly Puroresu: In the past, you’ve feuded with members of the Bullet Club. Now, the faction is being led by David Finlay, but appears to be dying its final breaths like the nWo of the early 2000s. Do you intend to put the final nails in the coffin of the Bullet Club?

KUSHIDA: I don’t really know about Bullet Club, but I feel familiar with the three BC members Juice Robinson, Jay White & David Finlay. It’s very interesting all of them started their careers from New Japan dojo and end up joining Bullet Club.

Monthly Puroresu: You mentioned to Sports Illustrated in February that you’re inspired by change and progress in the sport of pro wrestling. Like my team at Monthly Puroresu, you’ve also made it your mission to bring Japan and the U.S. wrestling scenes closer. What inspires you to do so? Where do you see a future opportunity for KUSHIDA in the business of pro wrestling?

KUSHIDA: I think New Japan, which runs the NJPW Academy and the LA dojo, has that potential. Question is that how we handle the ship “New Japan” in the US. This may not work by just one person, but as long as there are people who have ideas, aspirations, philosophies and hopes, I believe we can advance in the right direction.

Monthly Puroresu: Your matches with Will Ospreay from 2016 – 2018 are the stuff of legend among puroresu fans. Would you like to think you had a hand in making Ospreay the star he is today? In terms of wrestlers in previous generations you could compare Ospreay to, who might they be?

KUSHIDA: I have never thought like that. Will Ospreay is Will Ospreay. He is a great wrestler from the start. I feel Kota Ibushi, Ospreay & Ricochet are outstanding. They have great athletic abilities. I respect them. Because of them, I was able to figure it out on my own and find my own style. I am grateful for being able to live in the same era as they do. Having someone I can learn from has enriched my life as a wrestler. And in the future, I’m excited to meet young wrestlers who has great abilities like Ospreay.

Monthly Puroresu: I’ve worked with the LA Dojo and Takami Ohbari in the past, and I understand there is so much passion to establish NJPW of America. However, there are a number of independent promotions such as Prestige, PCW Ultra, WestCoast Pro, and DEADLOCK Pro Wrestling that run in the same areas. Do you perceive any challenges to expand NJPW USA with so many other independent promotions running events on the coasts of America?

KUSHIDA: I have wrestled in DEFY, Wrestling REVOLVER, HOG & GCW. The pandemic is coming to an end, and American dependent scenes are booming. All promotions are great and doing their best. New Japan has its history and tradition. It is very famous promotion in Japan. It is natural that there would be many different opinions when starting something new. They are very cautious, so the speed of progress is slow.

It’s been four years since I started living in the US. What I realized by living there is that the world is evolving even faster now since we had the pandemic. With social media, people’s interests are changing faster.

Compared to Japan, the US government and companies quickly dealt with the issues regarding the cash hand-outs and masks. I, as a Japanese, got a culture shock from it. Everything has pros and cons. As long as we are New Japan, there are some parts we must stick to and other parts we must not change. When I think about those things, I get stuck and can’t do anything. So I will put all my experience into the NJPW Academy. I believe this is what I can do for New Japan. This is my way to take New Japan forward.

Monthly Puroresu: IMPACT Wrestling has been putting on some great professional wrestling events recently. In the past couple of years, names like Jay White and KUSHIDA have ventured over. What can you tell us about the competition in IMPACT versus other places you’ve wrestled?

KUSHIDA: That is what I want to say out loud. IMPACT has been consecutively holding great events and has so many great wrestlers there. They are professional. Their matches are high quality, and we can see pure wrestling in IMPACT. IMPACT is a great place for wrestlers to work. Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley, who are my best friends, are in IMPACT, so I also like that point, I will continue to work hard to ensure that New Japan Pro Wrestling and IMPACT continue to develop in a good relationship.

I will do my best to become a wrestler who is valuable to New Japan & IMPACT.