At 41 years of age, Tetsuya Naito, one of New Japan Pro Wrestling's (NJPW) most iconic figures, is demonstrating unwavering commitment to his craft. With an impending opportunity to claim his fourth reign as the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 18 on the horizon, following an impressive win in the 2023 G1 Climax Tournament, Naito's star continues to shine brightly.
In a candid conversation with NJPW after his triumphant victory, Naito conveyed a deep respect for his peers but didn't shy away from making comparisons. He touched upon the illustrious careers of Masahiro Chono and Hiroshi Tanahashi, two legends who achieved tournament victories at ages similar to his own.
“Having witnessed Chono's 2005 win as a spectator and been backstage during Tanahashi's 2018 victory, I confidently feel that when you compare each of us at the age of 41, I still surpass them. There's more fuel left in my tank,” Naito stated, reflecting both his self-assuredness and respect for his seniors.
Despite his confidence, Naito also showed vulnerability. He spoke openly about the injuries he has accumulated over the years. “It’s undeniable. The mobility I once prided myself on is not what it used to be. While I still feel I have a significant journey ahead in this profession, I'm also acutely aware that the sands of time are running out for me.
The distant notion of retirement is now becoming a more tangible reality”.
Naito's Physical Challenges Fuel Determination
He went on to detail the challenges he faces physically, pointing out his knee and eye troubles.
Yet, he sees these as motivations rather than setbacks. “Every moment, in the ring or at the gym, becomes all the more crucial. It pushes me to capitalize on the present, knowing there's no time to waste,” Naito reflected.
In 2023, Naito's dedication is still being rewarded. Though he may acknowledge the twilight of his career, his performance tells a different story. This was evident when his semi-final match against Will Ospreay at the G1 earned a staggering six-star rating from renowned wrestling critic, Dave Meltzer.
Clearly, as Tetsuya Naito edges closer to the culmination of his professional journey, he continues to deliver unparalleled in-ring artistry.