Interview With . . . Sanshiro Takagi

When Inside the Ropes spoke with CyberFight President Sanshiro Takagi in October of last year, little did we know that what was billed as an interview would turn into something of a prophecy.

From the continued resurgence of Pro Wrestling NOAH to DDT Pro-Wrestling and Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling’s respective link-ups with AEW, many of Takagi’s hopes for the group, that were expressed in that interview, have since come to pass.

Now, on the doorstep of the interview’s one outstanding item- the Saitama Super Arena supershow now known as CyberFight FestivalInside the RopesLiam Wyatt caught up with the President to discuss the group’s progress thus far and its plans for the future.

When we last spoke in October 2020, you spoke of many great plans for the CyberFight stable, several of which have since come to fruition, including a return to the Saitama Super Arena and talent excursions to AEW. How happy are you with the stable’s progress, thus far?

I leave the day-to-day tasks at NOAH up to their team, but the team is functioning well around Takeda-san. The fact that the Budokan show was a success was huge for the team.
In my personal opinion, it was a bit of a gamble to run Budokan, and I feel that the NOAH team won that gamble. Motivation was always high at NOAH, but it was less visible until the financial foundation stabilized. We had NOAH join our Group from the perspective of striving to become number one in the industry, and they are delivering. Going forward, the goal domestically will be to have more eyeballs on the great stuff that is going on inside the ring. It has some ways to go internationally, but I’m leaving that up to the NOAH team too.

As for DDT, as I always mention, it is still time to build up and prepare, just like Takeshita recently said in a ShuPro (Weekly Pro-Wrestling magazine) interview that it is time for him to build up and prepare. More specifically, it’s about adding skillsets, brushing up different concepts, getting prepared to cross over to the masses, etc. It won’t be too far until we flip the switch and go on the offensive.

With TJPW, I must first mention the debut of Yuki Arai. Both the management of CyberFight and SKE48 (the idol group she belongs to) were confident in a successful debut, but the news spread across to the general masses far beyond what we expected; they simply took to the news that a top member of a top idol group in Japan entered into the world of pro-wrestling, full-on. At 167cm tall and 23 years-old, Arai has the potential to become a top star in wrestling, not just in Japan but globally. She’s always had her eyes on global expansion even as an idol, and I think that it might have been one of the reasons why she chose to take up pro-wrestling (Arai ranked 28th in the AKB Group Global General Elections out of 339 members).

It feels that the stars have aligned now for TJPW to take aggressive action, with all the different talent on the roster. We originally had Arai scheduled to appear once a month or so, but we’re already adding shows to our schedule. The Japanese wrestling industry has a tendency to disapprove of situations where there is one dominant player, and it might be the case that people were looking for a new star to emerge from somewhere other than Stardom.

Ganbare Pro is coming along fine, but then they do have to step up and reach the next phase, so I am talking to them. Specifically, they need to have multiple Korakuen shows on their schedule or run shows in big cities outside of Tokyo that have population bases in the millions. There are new things being born inside the ring too, such as Ganbare Joshi (“GanJo”) spearheaded by Yuna Manase.

The Saitama Super Arena show is of course CyberFight Festival 2021 and will feature matches from DDT, NOAH, TJPW and Ganbare. How did plans for this joint super-show come around?

The top management of each brand/promotion get together and talk on a regular basis, so that is where these ideas come about. The top management were in agreement that we needed a breakthrough; we all share the motivation to become number one in the industry and base our daily actions and decisions on that goal, and I believe that this supershow is a culmination of all of that.

Do you envisage CyberFight Festival becoming an annual event and can we expect more cross-promotional shows throughout the year?

Right now we are focusing on making CyberFight Festival 2021 a success, and then we will think about what ensues.

There are a handful of inter-promotional matches on the show – was it challenging to be restrained in booking ‘dream matches’?

I really didn’t have too much cross-promotional stuff in mind. My match against Kenoh wasn’t something in the original plans, but given what has happened between us, the best thing to do is settle it inside the ring so that everyone can see where things end up. But really, I didn’t have too many inter-promotional matches planned, given the volume and balance of everything that will take place that day. Competition between promotions occur outside of the context of fighting each other directly in the ring; the Triple Main Event is also a competition to see which title match puts on the best performance between the three promotions.

DDT, TJPW and NOAH have each developed their English offerings over the last six months. Do you foresee a continued expansion into English language content going forward and if so, what does that look like?

We want to continue to be aggressive. If there are foreign media out there that are willing to give us a platform, we would love to talk to them more. DDT and NOAH both have staff that are in charge of international business, and we are equipped to host Zoom fan meetings with English-speaking fans, for example. DDT will have its first live English Commentary at CyberFight Festival, and it will not be the last time that happens. I think it is a must that we tackle the American and European markets, and we will do so with a different approach
from that of New Japan. We will also work on accessing Asian markets.

Despite the challenges surrounding travel, DDT and TJPW stars have appeared on AEW programming recently, with Maki Itoh and Konosuke Takeshita both going on excursion to the US. How would you describe the working relationship with AEW?

I think the relationship is great, at least from our end. It’s actually not that hard to travel to the US from our end, but then again there is the issue of losing two weeks in quarantine when talent return to Japan. But since they put our talent on their shows, we’d like to return the favor too when the situation allows. We’d like to get Kenny Omega back in DDT after COVID subsides too.

There are a lot of DDT family/alums in AEW such at Ethan Page, Ricky Starks, Sammy Guevara, Colt Cabana, Thunder Rosa, Royce Isaacs, and I want to see all of them succeed.

Other than the talent we’ve already had in DDT, I’d love to book Orange Cassidy. I’d also like to bring Joey Janela to Japan too, not just to return the favour of him being a great host for Yoshihiko’s US tour; I’ve always had in interest in booking him. We also have a relationship with Hikaru Shida; I was actually one of the judges in the audition for the movie that
ended up kicking off her pro-wrestling career. She’s doing great right now, and I’d love to see her make a triumphant return to Japan in DDT one day.

Were you surprised by how positively Maki Itoh was received by the AEW fanbase? She was an instant hit!

I actually wasn’t that surprised; I knew she had it in her to become an instant hit. I was watching YouTube in real time, but I wasn’t surprised when I saw the chat window get totally taken over by Maki Itoh mentions. For many of the AEW fans though, she may have seemed like she suddenly came out of nowhere, from completely off their radars.

Can we expect to see more talent head to the states for excursion and in return, AEW talent heading to Japan?

Our general policy is to let talent go on excursion to AEW, so long as AEW and the talent themselves want it. With Takeshita, unlike with Itoh, he took the initiative and made the move to go; we just provided support. Personally, I think Mizuki and Hikari Noa would be interesting picks for AEW. Mizuki will send shockwaves across the globe if she delivers the Whirling Candy on AEW TV. Hikari would leave a huge impact if she teams with, or fights against, Jon Moxley.

We’re over a year into Pro Wrestling NOAH’s acquisition by CyberAgent and the promotion appears to be going from strength to strength. Have you been happy with their progress over the past 18 months?

I am absolutely satisfied, but again the progress was a process of bringing them out of a negative state, and we have finally reached a point where we can expect a brighter future. We’ve succeeded in rebranding NOAH, in giving the name a more positive ring. Again, I do say “we”, but it was the result of the motivation of the NOAH team and Takeda-san’s leadership.

Between the diversity within the CyberFight stable’s offering and its increasing international exposure, do you think you’re beginning to tip the power balance in the Japanese wrestling scene?

I do feel that we have momentum, and slowly but surely, the financials are coming along, with some latency. It will all be about how much we can catch up during this COVID era.

Having said that, aside from the competition or who’s ranked where in the industry, I do feel that the industry needs to work together to a certain extent, especially under these circumstances. The Japanese pro-wrestling industry does not have a central body or a commission like other professional sports do, so it is hard to work together when lobbying/working with the government, or making a joint statement to the public, etc. We (NJPW, AJPW, DDT, NOAH, Diana, TJPW, Stardom) did once make a joint plea to Congressman Hiroshi Hase in 2020, but I believe that we need to take that a step further and create some kind of commission or central body.

From an in-ring perspective, the likes of Yuki Ueno, Hikari Noa and others are seemingly having ‘breakout’ years. Who has impressed you thus far in 2021 and who do you expect big things from in the future?

Ueno like you mentioned of course, but also Katsumata and MAO, and Takeshita once again. Takeshita hit rock bottom last year, losing twice to Jun Akiyama. He knew he had to do something and that is why he went to AEW, and it seems that he has gained something while he was there, along with a whole bunch of new followers on Twitter. I want to see how he makes a comeback in late 2021 to 2022.

When I think about what Katsumata and MAO are still lacking in order to become top talent, I see that Endo and Takeshita have the motivation to become top wrestlers in the entire industry, but it seems to me that Katsumata and MAO still have sides of them that want to enjoy just being themselves. I can’t deny that they have gained popularity by enjoying what they do, but they need a broader perspective if they want to elevate themselves to the next level.

At Tokyo Joshi, I expect great things out of Hikari Noa, Yuki Arai, Suzume, and Mirai Maiumi. Miyu Yamashita is the current Princess of Princess Champion, but the next generation needs to emerge and take over the veterans. I don’t know who specifically will get the job done out of Hikari, Arai, Suzume, and Mirai, but the roster already has the talent to bring about a generational turnover. Hikari has the most visible charisma, but on the other hand you can see that kind of ambition burning inside Suzume and Mirai. Arai made a sudden and huge impact coming in from the outside which has affected everyone on the roster, and it’s interesting to watch because you can see how that impact lit a fire inside everyone else on the roster.

With all of the brands/promotions, I’m always thinking about 10 years out into the future. There’s a reason why I do TikTok when I’m in my 50s, while the app is targeted for teens. We need to create new stars that resonate with that demographic.

Speaking of Noa, when we last spoke, she had recently threatened to run you over in her van on a Rojo – are you still looking over your shoulder for her?

For sure. Knowing her, she might attack at any moment. Her hardcore debut match wasn’t bad, but I did feel that she played around a bit too much; I don’t think she needed to bring the CDs (leftover inventory of the debut CD of the Up Up Girls) as a weapon. If she wants to beat Rina Yamashita, she needs to think about more creative and effective weapons. She’s good with ladders, so it might do her well to think of more variations for the use of the ladder.

One of the other goals you mentioned last year was to run the Tokyo Dome – is this still an aspiration and if so, when would you hope to do it?

Of course that is still a goal of ours; if we make CyberFight Festival 2021 a success, I think we will start to get a glimpse of the path to Tokyo Dome.

At CyberFight Festival, you’ll be part of a 14 man tag team match against Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Kongoh stable. What are your expectations of Kenoh and his team?

I don’t expect anything from him. If he really wants to get more eyeballs on NOAH and have it cross over to the masses, he should stop being opinionated and vocal just on his weekly article on ShuPro and get on social media. I’m going to put an end to everything and finish him off in Saitama Super Arena.

Finally, since many of your goals from our last conversation have already come to pass, I wanted to ask what your hopes for the stable were for the short and midterm?

NOAH is doing fine; they just need to keep going on the path that they are on. DDT celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, so we will keep building for that. With TJPW, a big star in Yuki Arai has joined, so I expect a chemical reaction that stimulates the existing roster members. A lot of things depend on the situation surrounding COVID, but I do believe that we will have a clearer outlook once CyberFight Festival 2021 is in the books.

With thanks to President Takagi and Mr. HAKU of CyberFight. You can watch CyberFight Festival 2021 live on WRESTLE UNIVERSE on Sunday, June 6th.