NJPW’s recent rebranding of its titles leaves Hiroshi Tanahashi’s NEVER openweight belt as one of the top prizes in the company.
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Hiroshi Tanahashi: “I will elevate the status of the NEVER belt until it’s on a level with the IWGP, or even higher”
Even with a new title, Hiroshi Tanahashi is back in a familiar position.
Tanahashi, who has helped bring New Japan Pro-Wrestling to new heights throughout his legendary career, is now in his first run as the NEVER openweight champion.
This title is unique in New Japan, as it is open to both heavyweights and junior heavyweights. With the unification of the IWGP heavyweight and intercontinental titles, the NEVER openweight belt has the potential to emerge as the second-most important piece of gold in New Japan.
“This is about starting something new, creating a new kind of fire,” Tanahashi says through a translator. “There’s something to changing people’s conceptions, and that includes having the NEVER surpass the IWGP name.”
The belt was first established in New Japan nine years ago. Unlike New Japan’s other championships (the IWGP titles, named for NJPW’s governing body), NEVER is an acronym of New Blood, Evolution, Valiantly, Eternal and Radical. The title developed its own identity over time, offering extremely physical matches that stood out from the world title picture.
More recent, the title reigns have been shorter, but Tanahashi seeks to change that with a lengthy, meaningful run. And though big stars have held the title—Tomohiro Ishii, Katsuyori Shibata, Hirooki Goto, Kota Ibushi and current IWGP world heavyweight champion Will Ospreay are all former champions—this is a chance to reach a whole new level of prestige with Tanahashi leading the way.
Tanahashi meets Jay White at Wrestling Dontaku on May 3, a high-profile encounter placing the openweight championship in the main event.
“I think the most exciting thing about it is being able to wrestle more opponents that I haven’t had the chance to up to now,” Tanahashi says. “There are a lot of new possibilities opening up and that’s really cool.”
The title reign for Tanahashi began at the end of January when he defeated Shingo Takagi for the belt in a 35-minute match that ended with his signature High Fly Flow. Takagi is a rising star for New Japan who will challenge Ospreay for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship at the second night of Wrestling Dontaku—and he is a talent Tanahashi sees as an important piece of New Japan’s future.
“Takagi has many strong points, but what I will say impresses me particularly is the energy he puts into every single one of his matches,” Tanahashi says. “Whether it’s against a young guy, a veteran or whoever, he gives his opponent everything he has. I think he could absolutely be IWGP world heavyweight champion at some point.”
With no weight restrictions, there are endless options for Tanahashi to wrestle new opponents throughout New Japan, including talent from the junior heavyweight division like Taiji Ishimori.
“I want newsworthy opponents, newsworthy matchups,” Tanahashi says. “Get people talking about the match, talking about the belt, and then deliver on the match itself. That’s how to elevate this championship.”
The longtime standard-bearer for New Japan, Tanahashi now seeks to add a new chapter to his legacy. There is much at stake, establishing the belt as a top-tier title, perhaps even shifting it from NEVER to IWGP branding, and supplanting the status of the now-defunct intercontinental title. Naturally, those responsibilities are being shouldered by the company ace, who still puts on a magnificent display of the craft inside the ring.
“I will elevate the status of the NEVER belt until it’s on a level with the IWGP, or even higher,” Tanahashi says. “And I’ll have the whole world watching in the process.”
Cesaro on his favorite coffee around the world
Cesaro picked up the most meaningful win of his WWE career earlier this month at WrestleMania 37, where he emerged victorious against Seth Rollins.
While it briefly appeared that he was set to challenge Roman Reigns for the universal championship, Rollins attacked Cesaro last Friday on SmackDown to add another barrier to his world title plans.
Cesaro, whose name is Claudio Castagnoli, grew up in Lucerne, Switzerland, watching WWE pay-per-views after midnight due to the time difference. He fell in love with the spirit of pro wrestling, which is an element he now captures in his work. Away from the ring, a constant throughout Cesaro’s career has been his affinity for coffee.
“We both love double espresso,” says Shinsuke Nakamura, Cesaro’s former tag team partner. “We always share that in common.”
A world traveler and speaker of five languages, Cesaro has trekked across the globe in pursuit of his wrestling dreams. Those trips have also allowed him to explore all different kinds of coffee.
“Where is the best coffee in the world?” Cesaro asks. “I couldn’t pick one place. There is great coffee everywhere.
“It’s a little different everywhere. I think the United States is coming a long way. A lot of people in America grew up with coffee in a big ceramic mug. In Europe, you grow up with smaller drinks, like espresso. The Middle East has Turkish coffee. All over the world, there are different coffee rituals and different coffee drinks. It’s part of people’s upbringings and culture.”
Due to the pandemic, WWE no longer travels its extensive tour schedule. But when it did, Cesaro—who even sells his own coffee—relished the chance to travel to different countries and continents and towns, always seeking those coffee spots off the beaten path.
“That’s when you really experience the culture and the people and the way they do things,” Cesaro says. “In the U.S., I love those small coffee shops that roast their own beans.”
Working in Florida, the pure volume of high-profile coffee chains makes themselves very convenient, but Cesaro noted his preference is always to find the local coffee shops.
“If I’m in a pinch, I’ll grab a cold brew at Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “Here in Florida, there is a place called Lineage that is really good. When we were running in St. Pete for the ThunderDome, there was a place called Bandit that I really liked.”
Coffee represents a multibillion-dollar industry. It even served as the conduit to this past season’s Curb Your Enthusiasm series on HBO, in which a battle took place between Larry David’s Latte Larry’s coffee shop against rival Mocha Joe’s.
“I am a huge fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I always talk about it with Sami Zayn,” Cesaro says. “I haven’t watched the latest season, but I’m excited to know it has to do so much with coffee.”
The (online) week in wrestling
- Monday’s Raw was again underwhelming. There were a couple of highlights—Randy Orton’s backstage interaction and match with Matt Riddle among them, as well as the Kofi Kingston–Elias match—but there is an intensity lacking to the show as a whole throughout the three hours.
- Christian Cage, who is adding value to every segment in which he appears on Dynamite, is the exact type of talent that WWE needs to infuse some life and highlight younger stars on Raw. Though there was no interest from WWE following his appearance at the Royal Rumble, that is exactly what Cage is doing in AEW.
- Another building block for Raw should have been Samoa Joe, who is dripping with intensity. Joe was among WWE’s talent cuts last week.
- Pat McAfee is part of the new broadcast team on SmackDown, bringing an organic touch not normally part of a WWE broadcast.
- The A&E episode looking at the career of Steve Austin was very entertaining. Since WWE is providing the footage, there were certainly important parts omitted from Austin’s story. It will be interesting to see how controversial moments are handled in further episodes in the series.
- WWE’s Most Wanted Treasures on A&E was also a really fun watch, especially considering it featured so much Mick Foley. The highlight for me was catching a glimpse of those wrestling collections, which were incredible.
- Foley was also on this week’s Pawn Stars.
- During his Pro Wrestling 4 Life podcast, Sean Waltman shared some phenomenal insight on the meaning embedded in the Sasha Banks–Bianca Belair main event from WrestleMania 37, stating: “I felt feelings that I haven’t felt in a long time for a pro wrestling match. It was really important. Some people might go, ‘It’s not Black history, it’s not women’s history, it’s just history.’ No, this is historical for Black women. In general, Black women do not get the credit that they deserve. To see that and to see Bianca out there trying to hold back the tears, I’m trying not to cry right now.”
- Keith Lee is another performer who could infuse Raw with some desperately needed life.
Rich Swann on Mauro Ranallo: “I hope I can hear his voice during the match”
Rich Swann meets Kenny Omega in a title vs. title match this Sunday on pay-per-view.
The winner of the match, which will main-event Impact’s Rebellion show, will walk away with both the AEW and Impact titles. There are few times in Impact’s history when the company has generated such considerable interest in a pay-per-view main event, and adding to the pomp and circumstance of the moment is guest broadcaster Mauro Ranallo, who we will call Omega-Swann.
Ranallo is best known in wrestling for his time in WWE, but he also has history calling New Japan shows for AXS TV. He is a staple of the MMA world, currently serving as the lead voice for Bellator, and he also took part in two extremely high-profile events in which he provided play-by-play for Conor McGregor–Floyd Mayweather in 2017 and in November with Mike Tyson–Roy Jones Jr.
“Mauro is one of the greatest commentators I’ve ever heard, and that includes wrestling, fighting, boxing,” Swann says. “I just listened to him on Showtime call Bellator. When I heard the news that he was calling this match, I thought about how much more this moment is going to mean.”
Swann and Ranallo share history dating back to WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament from 2016, when Ranallo called the matches with Daniel Bryan. Swann lost in the quarterfinals to eventual tournament winner T.J. Perkins, but then won the belt after defeating Brian Kendrick in November 2016, a match also called by Ranallo.
“We definitely go back,” Swann says. “Mauro called some of the biggest matches of my career in WWE, and I can’t wait to be reunited. I hope I can hear his voice during this match. Bringing in Mauro takes this to a different level.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.