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You can barely walk down the street these days without seeing someone dressed in a Bullet Club T-shirt from New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), and considering this pro wrestling faction with the cult-like following is unrelated to WWE, that’s a pretty big deal. But with NJPW’s stateside expansion paying off in recent years, these types of sights are becoming commonplace. The company’s success in the West was recently given some serious mainstream spotlight when New Japan teamed with Ring of Honor to sell out one of the world’s most famous arenas, Madison Square Garden, in the same week that WrestleMania hit MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Alongside this mega event, titled G1 Supercard of Honor, a fan-fest was hosted where thousands lined up to get autographs and take selfies with their favorite superstars. NJPW’s current rise to prominence is an incredible feat when you consider that the majority of their shows are hosted back in the Land of the Rising Sun, and many of its top stars don’t speak English. That said, subscriptions are still skyrocketing for NJPW World, its official dedicated streaming service.
NJPW offers wrestling enthusiasts a more serious, strong-style approach to the grapple game, and its influence can be seen in many stateside promotions. WWE’s Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura and A.J. Styles all had success in NJPW before Monday Night Raw or SmackDown.
The language of pro wrestling is truly universal, and this is never more evident than when watching NJPW’s Junior Heavyweight Champion, Taiji Ishimori, in blazing action. Born in Tagajō, Japan, the 36-year-old re-joined NJPW as part of the Bullet Club in May 2018 and continues to captivate audiences all over the world with his combination of brute strength and cat-like agility. Taiji has a background in amateur wrestling and made his pro debut in 2002. Since then, he’s been causing a stir with his own brand of high-flying action.
Through an interpreter, we caught up with the Bone Soldier in New York City for an exclusive insight into NJPW’s rapid growth, and his approach to physical fitness.
M&F: As an established pro wrestler, you’ve wrestled all over the world before returning to NJPW. Now that you are back with the Bullet Club, how does this make you feel?
Taiji: I’m pretty happy because of the current international expansion of New Japan. The major reason I signed was because I wanted to be more popular internationally and influence fans not just in Japan, but all over the world, so I’m pretty happy about that.
Madison Square Garden is one of the world’s most famous arenas. How was it performing there?
This is something that I never thought I would have a chance to do. I’m humbled and honored.
As IWPGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, are you excited about showing American audiences what you can do, which might be different from what they have seen before?
I’m not going to try and do anything more special [than I would not normally do. I’ll do it] the same way I do it in Japan, and hope that something catches people’s minds and surprises them—to do something that will make fans want to watch more of my matches.
You’re very agile. How do you work on that?
With training, I do 80 percent bodybuilding-type training, like lifting weights, and 20 percent maintaining agility, where I do CrossFit.
Some of the moves that you do in the ring require great strength. How have you specifically trained for this?
I lift, but I am not trying to seek the limits of what I can do. I just follow the routines. I deadlift 180kgs, sometimes 200kg.
Considering that you weigh 75kg, that is very impressive! When it comes to training, which exercises do you enjoy—or not?
[Laughs] I don’t have anything that I like particularly! I don’t really like squats, but I know it’s something I have to do. I don’t feel much joy from CrossFit, either, but I feel it’s my duty [to get my conditioning to where I want it to be].
Nutrition is important to stay flexible and fast, but it must be tough to get the right foods when you’re on the road. How do you find the right balance?
[I follow] simple rules. I try not to eat too much, or drink too much. I’m not a vegetarian, but I do try to eat a lot of vegetables. I get my carbs from rice, and I eat proteins, but I do try to keep my fat intake as low as possible. When I’m at home I usually cook.
Are you a good cook?
I’m OK [Laughs]
You’ve competed with some legendary athletes and mentors like Ultimo Dragon and Keiji Muto. What have you learned to help you progress as a pro wrestler?
The depth of pro wrestling. As I’ve wrestled for many years, I kind of started to feel like I knew everything about what pro wrestling is, but after working with some of those legends, I realized that there is still so much in pro wrestling that I must learn and acquire. With time, comes respect. When I started wrestling, and I was young, I wasn’t really interested in tomorrow, or any potential injuries that I might get. Now [at 36], I consider those things more, and I’m a little bit more careful about it.
NJPW’s current growth is a very exciting time for you. Do you have any specific goals now?
Well, I think it’s just begun. Madison Square Garden [was] just the very first stepping stone of international expansion. Although I am reaching [a certain] age—and people kindly call me a ‘veteran’ sometimes—I think I can move as fast as the young guys, and I feel in myself that I am still evolving every day. I don’t feel like I have reached my peak yet, so I look forward to what will happen as I continue to wrestle for New Japan. I’m pretty excited about what I can show to the fans, and people all over the world – to lead the Junior Heavyweights of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
On April 6, Taiji retained his Junior Heavyweight Championship in a fast-paced match at Madison Square Garden’s G1 Supercard. New Japan Pro Wrestling comes back to the U.S. for G1 Climax 29 at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas on July 6.
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