Hiroshi Tanahashi's early days in NJPW were a roller coaster to say the least.
Not only did Tanahashi work as an assistant to Keiji Muto, but also had a heated confrontation with the legendary Antonio Inoki during an NJPW show in 2002. As explained in a recent edition of "Aces High," Muto had left NJPW and there was a strong sentiment against Antonio Inoki’s new vision for the company. Masahiro Chono was representing the wrestlers and called Inoki out in front of the crowd with Yuji Nagata, Manabu Nakanishi, Kenzo Suzuki and Tanahashi present.
Inoki asked each of the wrestlers in turn whether they were mad and Tanahashi revealed that he was mad, but couldn't just outright say it. He instead said he wanted to be with NJPW.
"I didn’t answer his question at all (laughs) [I said, ‘I’m going to wrestle in an NJPW ring!’]. At least in the end, I bore those words out, but I wasn’t really thinking much at the time. Yeah, I was pissed off. Really pissed off [at Inoki]. If I were to say how I felt I would have told him, ‘This whole thing is f***ed up’. He would have said ‘who are you mad at?’ and I would have said ‘you’. But I just couldn’t be as straightforward as that," Tanahashi said.
In the end, Tanahashi felt like answering Inoki's question would be a losing battle and ended up taking a slap from Inoki.
"So as he went down the line, he was basically saying ‘why are you telling me this?’. By the time he got to me, asking who I was mad at, I figured actually answering the question would be a losing gambit, so I figured I’d just say what I wanted to do. It was a turning point, yeah. We each took that Inoki slap and I gave him my best stare at the end," Tanahashi said.
The full interview can be read at this link.