FLASHBACK: FERGAL DEVITT INTERVIEW (OCTOBER 2012)
TO MARK THE release of The Power Slam Interviews Volume 2, I am posting a series of interviews on powerslamonline.co.uk this week that were originally published in Power Slam, but have not been included in The Power Slam Interviews Volume 2 (or The Power Slam Interviews Volume 1, for that matter).
Should you enjoy the interviews I am uploading here, I’m confident you would appreciate The Power Slam Interviews Volume 2, which contains more than 20 vintage PS interviews — all of which come with a new introduction — along with five previously unpublished interviews and other original content. More information about the book, which is available from Amazon, iBooks and Kobo, can be found here: www.powerslamonline.co.uk/updates/285/The-Power-Slam-Interviews-Volume-2-Now-Available.htm
THIS INTERVIEW WITH Fergal ‘Prince’ Devitt was recorded via telephone on October 2, 2012, and originally published across four pages in Issue 218 of Power Slam.
Devitt was under contract to New Japan Pro Wrestling and thoroughly gung ho about the company at the time of our chat. Eighteen more months would pass before he left NJPW for WWE; his work in Japan was far from done.
Earlier that year, he had held the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team title for the fourth time with Apollo 55 team-mate Ryusuke Taguchi and, through NJPW, made his CMLL debut.
Six weeks after our conversation, Devitt captured the IWGP junior heavyweight title for the third time. By autumn 2012, it was universally accepted that Devitt was the ace of NJPW’s junior heavyweight scene. Devitt characteristically tried to play down his status when I noted that he was the principal performer in the division.
Devitt and I discussed his exploits in New Japan and CMLL, the purchase of NJPW by Bushiroad Inc. that year, and his contemporaries, including NJPW’s star heavyweight Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, who had shocked everyone when he toppled Tanahashi for the IWGP heavyweight title in February 2012. What’s more, Devitt and I talked about his evolution as a performer, the wrestlers he admired in WWE, his ambitions and more.
This was the third of four interviews PS conducted with Fergal Devitt. He always made himself available for an interview with the magazine, when we enquired, and he was always a pleasure to converse with.
The October 2012 Devitt interview begins now . . .
YOU’VE JUST RETURNED to County Wicklow, Ireland following a wrestling tour of Mexico for CMLL. How did that go?
“I had a fantastic time. I did three Friday night shows at Aréna Mexico [in Mexico City] and the in between shows, so I was there two-and-a-half weeks. The first time I went there, it was a bit of an, erm, experience. I got really sick: the Mexican water didn’t agree with me. But, this time, I had no problems. I enjoyed it very much.
“It’s actually surreal standing behind the curtain at Aréna Mexico, one of the most famous wrestling buildings in the world. You’re waiting to make your entrance, and you’re, like, ‘How the hell did I end up here?’ I’m just a young lad from Bray.”
Your first CMLL tour was in March this year.
“Yeah. I went over representing New Japan, and had a series of matches with Volador Jr. I won the longest-named title in the business.”
That’s the NWA World Historic middleweight title, which you captured from Volador Jr. on March 30 at Aréna Mexico.
“I defended it against Taichi and against Volador Jr. in Tokyo . . . I dropped it in Mexico City last Friday to Dragon Rojo Jr. I’m not sure if many people know him, but he’s a fantastic wrestler, good worker. Really good to be in the ring with. Rojo Jr. is not your classic lucha libre-style [wrestler] that people have become accustomed to watching. He’s more of an American-style wrestler.”
When you were wrestling Volador Jr. in March, I understand he really nailed you and you suffered an injury of some kind.
“[Laughs] There’s a long list of injuries I suffered in the first couple of matches in Mexico. I don’t know if it was a Welcome To Mexico-type party the lads [my opponents] were having. I took a few licks when I was there.
“The day before I travelled to Mexico, I suffered a grade-one calf tear when I was training in Tokyo. I was just warming up and I tore my calf, so I arrived in Mexico on one wheel. That didn’t help the situation.”
I believe your matches in Mexico were arranged by New Japan.
“That’s right. New Japan and CMLL have a talent exchange agreement.”
For a foreign wrestler, it must be far easier to perform in Mexico, backed by an inter-promotional talent agreement, than to try to organise it all yourself.
“Oh, absolutely. I tell you, I had in the past been contacted by different companies in Mexico about going and doing independent work. And it wasn’t possible because of my schedule in Japan, anyway. But I would be very reluctant to go in as an indie wrestler.
“I’ve met some foreign wrestlers in Mexico who are there, trying to make their own way. And more power to them because it’s a difficult place to live and earn money. There’s a lot of poverty. People complain about the state of affairs in Europe and the economy. But it’s an eye-opening experience being in Mexico City, seeing the kids on street corners, begging at traffic lights. It’s a very humbling experience.”
When you wrestle in Mexico, are you paid by New Japan?
“I’m under contract to New Japan. That’s who pays my wages. [When I’m wrestling in Mexico] I get my normal salary off New Japan, and I get, like, a travel commission.”
One question I’ve never asked a Western wrestler who works in Japan: do you pay income tax in Japan or your native Ireland?
“I’m a resident of Japan, and earn money and pay taxes in Japan. I just happen to travel home quite frequently to see my family.”
Understood. Will you be returning to Mexico?
“At the moment, it’s up in the air because my contract with New Japan expires in January . I can’t see it happening before January because we’ve got a busy run up to Christmas and then into the Tokyo Dome.
“Depending on what happens next year with New Japan, if they want to hire me again: if they do, I’m sure I’ll be sent back to Mexico. The Mexico office seemed to be happy [with me]. But it all depends on the contract situation with New Japan. I would only go back [if I was] attached to New Japan.”
You’ve been wrestling for New Japan for six-and-a-half years now, and, as a legal resident of the country, spend months over there each year. Can you speak much Japanese?
“I get asked that a lot. And the answer is, I know a little bit. But for being in the country for six-and-a-half years, I should know a lot more.
“The way I always approached Japan was that it was never something that was going to last forever. When I first went, I thought it was going to be a three-month trial and then I would go home. So, I thought, ‘I’ll pick up a little bit, and I’ll get by.’ Three months turned into six months. Then it was nine months. Then it was a year, two years. And I thought, ‘I wonder if they will rehire me again next year? Ah, I won’t bother learning the language.’
“I have learned little bits and pieces. I know how to order food and beer, the basics. But I can’t put things into past tense, present tense.
“The Japanese lads say, ‘Hey, Devitt. Six-and-a-half years in New Japan. Why no study Japanese?’
“And my answer is: ‘I study pro wrestling. Why bother learning Japanese? I only need to work here, you know. I work in the ring. I don’t need to speak Japanese to work in the ring.’
“But it also doesn’t help that the Japanese are very eager to speak English. A lot of the boys [wrestlers] speak English very well. Plus, the American lads who are on the tours, I can communicate with them.”
Are you recognised in the street in Japan?
“Occasionally. Wrestling is still a subculture in Japan. Over the last six years, New Japan has been on the up, and it’s still growing. With the new parent company in charge, they’re doing great business, and they’re advertising the company better. So, I think right now, some of the bigger [New Japan] stars are going to crack the mainstream . . . When Giant Bernard was with us [Matt ‘Tensai’ Bloom] he was noticed on the street because he stands out so much: he’s such a huge human.”
New Japan was taken over by Bushiroad Inc. in January. What was the reaction inside New Japan when Bushiroad bought the company from Yuke’s?
“When Yuke’s bought the company, we had been promised it was going to grow and it was going to do ‘this’ and ‘this’ and ‘this’. To me, when I heard that New Japan had been taken over by Bushiroad, I was, like, ‘Here we go again.’ There was lots of promises and pageantry.
“When the take-over happened, I wasn’t worried. We were assured that the guy who’s in charge of Bushiroad is a big wrestling fan, and he wanted to push the company.”
Sounds like that has happened.
“Yeah. The promotion for the G1 Climax was unbelievable. They had advertising boards bought all over the trains. So, they are putting money into the company and, from a business standpoint, it seems to me that [NJPW is] doing better since they took over the company.”
The Bushiroad people haven’t meddled with NJPW’s in-ring product, as far as I can see.
“I think they’re very much in charge of the marketing, advertising and business side of things. From what I can see, everything involved with the wrestling has been left to the same people.”
Shortly after the transfer of ownership, there was another major change in NJPW: Kazuchika Okada ended Hiroshi Tanahashi’s record-breaking fifth IWGP heavyweight title reign. Some complained at the time that a 24-year-old, who had never proven himself in wrestling and had been treated as a comedy figure by TNA, toppled Tanahashi. Those people were quickly silenced.
“I think he’s proven everyone wrong. I watched the [Tanahashi vs. Okada title] match live [on February 12], and the energy in the building was unbelievable. When he beat Tanahashi, the crowd reaction spoke for itself: no one could believe it.
“I also questioned at the time if it was sustainable. But three weeks later, Okada proved himself again against [Tetsuya] Naito at Korakuen Hall [on March 4]. He blew the house down again. Then he did it against [Hirooki] Goto [on May 3], and he’s continued to grow and improve throughout the year.”
Thrust into that position, a lot of wrestlers would have cracked under the pressure. Okada instead capitalised on it.
“People don’t realise that he’s never had another job: he’s only been a pro wrestler. He started, I think, in Ultimo Dragon’s gym. Then he went to Mexico and trained and wrestled there, came back to New Japan and then went to America for TNA. This is the experience he has gathered over the last six years. And when he was put in the limelight, he shone. He took all the experience he had from around the world and that helped make him the wrestler he is now.
“People say, ‘Oh, Okaka. He came out of nowhere. How can he just appear at the top?’ He hasn’t. He’s worked for a long, long time. This guy’s been doing 500 squats a day for years.”
Just for what the clueless, Vince Russo-led TNA put him through as Okada and Okato, Okada deserved the IWGP belt. Knowing how he was brought up in the industry, I bet he never complained about the inanity he had to endure in TNA.
“You do what you’re told. You smile and be humble.”
We ranked Tanahashi number one in The PS 50 last year. Some felt that C.M. Punk or Randy Orton should have taken the premier spot, but to me and at least one other person on the magazine, Tanahashi was the only credible selection. As a NJPW wrestler, I’m sure you approved of our choice.
“Yes. There’s absolutely no question that he’s the most consistent main-eventer on the planet. He does 25-minute main events every week and blows the house down. His in-ring work speaks for itself. Anyone who can’t see that is blind.
“Tanahashi, [Shinsuke] Nakamura, Goto, Okada, Naito: there’s five off the top of my head that would be, in my opinion, top five in the world. And I know there’s other great wrestlers in the world.”
Name someone outside NJPW or CMLL who has grabbed your attention lately.
“Dolph Ziggler. Obviously, Randy Orton as well.
“I’m a big fan of Ziggler at the moment: I think he’s a tremendous worker. It’s not the big things he does; it’s the little things. The intensity in his expressions. He does everything with meaning. A lot of younger wrestlers should be looking to emulate the way he works.
“He almost works the same way as 1980s wrestlers. There’s a direct comparison with Curt Hennig: Ziggler works similar to him. At the moment, he’s one of the brightest stars in WWE . . . I think one of the most underrated in the world at the moment is Karl Anderson. He’s stepped up.”
Complimenting him in our last interview on July 2, 2010, you called Anderson the “total package”. He’s been given a chance as a singles wrestler since his longtime tag team partner Matt ‘Giant Bernard/Tensai’ Bloom left for WWE after the February 2012 tour.
“I think a lot of people wondered what would happen to Karl Anderson when Giant Bernard left New Japan. He could have got left behind, lost in the shuffle. But he’s proven that he wasn’t just Giant Bernard’s partner: he’s a star in his own right.
“He had an unbelievable G1 Climax and run up to [the tournament in August]. If New Japan wants a foreigner to grow, he’s the foreigner they need. He understands the Japanese style. He has the work rate and the respect of the fans.
“Some people who come from WWE into New Japan see it as a step down, whereas ‘Machine Gun’ came in as a young boy, trained there and has earned respect. He’s just a natural. I remember the first time I saw him at an NWA convention in Nashville, Tennessee about eight years ago. He wrestled as Chad Allegra against the American Eagle, and I said, ‘That guy’s going to become a star.’ ”
From what I hear about Anderson, he’s committed to New Japan and really enjoys working there and appreciates everything the promotion has done for him.
“Absolutely. He was in the States a long time and couldn’t catch a break with WWE, TNA or Ring Of Honor. No one would take a chance on him. New Japan took a chance on him.”
Were you close with Matt Bloom? If so, did he speak to you about his decision to return to WWE earlier this year?
“Course I was close to him. We were on the road together for six years. It was his own personal situation, his circumstances: it suited him better to go back to WWE.”
Bloom as Giant Bernard reinvented himself as a credible big man-style performer, first in All Japan in 2005 and then in New Japan, from 2006-2012, after a long, mediocre run under various gimmicks in the WWF/WWE from the late 1990s through to 2004.
“People don’t realise how big he is. I’ve always been an admirer of big men in wrestling. People might be surprised about that. But I’m a huge fan of Big Show, Kane and The Undertaker. I think that’s the way wrestling should be. I don’t want to use the word ‘circus’, but [a wrestler] shouldn’t be the guy who looks like your next-door neighbour.
“I’ve always been interested in David vs. Goliath-style matches. Because he moves so well, I don’t think people realise how big [Bernard/Tensai] is. He’s a good worker. I’m pretty sure he’s doing all right in WWE, right?”
Not really. He’s shown flashes of what he’s capable of in singles matches with Randy Orton and Sheamus, and he performed well in the Money In The Bank match, won by Dolph Ziggler, on July 15. But his wins have been few and far between. While you were in Mexico, he lost to Ryback.
“He’s a funny fellah. Bernard came up to me and said, ‘You know, Ferg, this is my last run.’ And that was three years ago. And the next night, he’d be in a New Japan Cup match against [Hirooki] Goto and absolutely tore the house down. And he went on to have a great match against Tanahashi [on July 18, 2011] in Sapporo. Watch that one. Giant Bernard or Tensai, given the spotlight, he’ll shine.”
It’s fair to say you’ve been New Japan’s leading junior heavyweight for more than two years. You won the Best Of The Super Junior tournament in 2010 and participated in the G1 Climax that same year — in which you pinned Hiroshi Tanahashi. You’ve held the IWGP junior heavyweight title twice and the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championship four times with Ryusuke Taguchi. Is there anything left for you to accomplish in New Japan?
“There’s always things to achieve.”
“Consistency is the hardest thing to achieve in life . . . You said that I was the top guy. I don’t consider myself the top guy [in NJPW]. I still look up to guys like [Jushin] Liger, Tiger Mask — even my partner Taguchi. There’s no point in being put in a position and not being able to maintain it. For me, it’s about the continued ability to grow and to get better. Consistent people are going to outgrow you. So I’ve got to consistently get better and better, and that’s something I hope I can continue to achieve over the next two years.”
Do you consciously strive to improve or is it something that happens automatically as a consequence of your matches with an array of opponents in Japan, Mexico and Europe?
“I do strive to get better. But you won’t get better without experience. I cannot watch a match of mine from three months ago and be happy with it, let alone [a match from] two or three years ago. I’ll find fault and things that I would change and do differently and better. You have to want to get better and see different ways of doing things, and getting different reactions from doing the same things.
“The word ‘evolve’, I think, is overused. But you can’t let yourself get stale. It’s mostly the same people watching you. If you have 2,000 people in a building, 90 percent of those people have seen you wrestle before. And if they’ve seen you 10 times before, you’ve got to do something different to keep them coming back, and to keep them giving you the same reaction as they gave you the first time they saw you. What I do is try to make sure the reactions aren’t getting lower than they were.”
Shawn Michaels leaps to mind. I know you were a fan of his. When he did the broken arm angle with Brock Lesnar on the Raw before SummerSlam, he put every other WWE performer in his place. If you examine Michaels’ matches from 1992-1993 when he first went solo in the WWF, he could do more athletically, faster than he could from 2008-2010, but everything he did in the late evening of his career had more impact because he had developed a better understanding of timing and how to control fans’ emotions.
“That’s just something that comes with experience. You learn what works, when to do things and when not to do things, which is just as important. You develop a way of entertaining people without having to do a million things.”
Michaels could make one thing mean more than any 10 things done by most other wrestlers.
“That’s the art of pro wrestling.”
As you stated earlier, your one-year New Japan contract expires in January. I know WWE has expressed an interest in you before. Do you think WWE will reach out to you again in 2013?
“Erm, I’m not sure. I always see myself as a wrestler doing something he loves. I get to travel the world with my friends or to see my friends. I’m just enjoying having a good time, getting to express my love of pro wrestling in a way that satisfies my needs. I get put in a great position by my company against some of the most talented wrestlers in the world. And I’m very happy doing that. If other opportunities come about, I’ll listen to them. But at the moment, I’m 31, I’m in decent enough physical health and living a fulfilled and joyful life, and I wouldn’t want to offset any balance that I have right now too drastically.”
There’s a lot of European talent — British, mainly — in WWE’s developmental system. You must know some of them.
“Yeah. PAC’s somebody I’ve become very friendly with. He’s signed a developmental contract there: I think that’s common news.”
It is. Dragon Gate publicly bid him a fond farewell at the end of its July 22 show. Since then, the PAC/WWE relationship has been reported everywhere.
“[PAC and I] had a great match in June [in the Best Of The Super Junior tournament]: it was an absolute pleasure wrestling against him. He performed as well in a major tournament as anyone could have coming into New Japan. He shone. He was a star.
“I know some other English fellas have gone over [to WWE] and a couple more might be on their way. The world is opening up. When I was [wrestling] in England seven or eight years ago, WWE seemed a million light years away, whereas now it seems more of an achievable goal [for a European wrestler] to be going to the States. I know ‘Rockstar’ Spud and Marty Scurll are involved in TNA. The wrestling world is definitely getting smaller.”
On August 6, 2010, you tweeted the following: “I would like to apologise to the lady in the crowd that I landed on tonight. GET WELL SOON!” Tell us what happened there. And have you had any other fan-related mishaps?
“There were two occasions like that. I’m not sure which one I was referring to then. There was one where I was thrown into the crowd by Strong Man: he gorilla-pressed me at ringside and threw me into the crowd. As I was flying through the air, I elbowed a woman right in the face. And I, like, split her eye, and she had to be taken to hospital. I met her at the next show. The company brought her in.”
Was she sporting a noticeable scar or bruise?
“She still had a little bit of a welt. I felt terrible. They said to me after the match, “The lady got taken to hospital.” That’s the last thing you want to happen.
“The other time was when I was wrestling against Tiger Mask. I did a topé. He was outside the ring. I started running across the ring when I [thought to myself], ‘I’m really tired here. I’m not sure if I’m going to get over the top rope. I’d better jump extra hard.’
“I was blown, right. So, I chucked myself across the ring and I jumped as hard as I could [laughs], and I jumped completely over the top rope, Tiger Mask and the fence and I landed right in a woman’s lap in the front row, and wiped out three people. Fortunately, none of them was seriously injured.”
For anyone reading this who hasn’t seen Prince Devitt wrestle, which three matches would you recommend they watch?
“That’s a hard question. Matches for different people stand out differently. For me, I really enjoyed the matches with [Naomichi] Marufuji. The best one for me was from December 23, 2009 [in Tokyo].”
The final of the two-night Super-J Cup.
“Yeah. Not for the match, but for the circumstances surrounding the match. The [second would be a] Best Of The Super Junior tournament match against [Kota] Ibushi in June 2010, for different reasons. And a recent match against KUSHIDA in the Best Of The Super Junior tournament.”
The KUSHIDA bout would be the one which occurred on the opening night of the tournament, May 27, 2012?
“That’s it. Not because I think they’re all great matches, but because to me, personally, they were all important.”
Is there anyone in Japan you haven’t yet wrestled whom you would like to?
“If I was wrestling [The Great] Muta, that would be a good position on the card, I reckon.”
Would you prefer to face him as The Great Muta or Keiji Muto?
“Wouldn’t bother me. And I would like to wrestle the Dragon Gate champion, CIMA.”
You must have met your compatriot Stephen Farrelly — alias Sheamus — before he joined WWE.
Did you ever wrestle him in Ireland?
“No. The way things were at the time was that I was heavily involved with the NWA promotion, which was one company, and [Sheamus was with] Irish Whip Wrestling, which was another company, and we didn’t really interact with each other.
“I worked once with Irish Whip before I went to America which made a little bit of waves with some of the boys, who maybe took things too seriously.”
Were they ticked off because you had worked for the “opposition”?
“Yeah. I see wrestling as one, and everyone should be trying to help everyone else. Other people are trying to push people down. Everyone should be trying to help each other up. I thought it was better for me, personally, to get as much experience wrestling as many people as possible as opposed to restricting myself to one little pocket. Like, in Ireland, there were maybe 40 wrestlers. So why should I limit myself to wrestling 20 of them when there were another 20 only an hour’s drive away? That was the way I saw it.”
I’ve never been able to understand the “us against them” mentality in small-time wrestling. Major league wrestling in which millions and jobs are at stake, I get it. But if you’re talking about crowds of 150 or fewer from which very little money is derived, what is the point? What are they fighting over? What does the discord achieve?
“That’s the exact point. It makes sense if livelihoods are on the line, but when we’re all striving just to get better at something we all love . . . Essentially, we’ve got the same hobby. Why would you dislike someone that has basically the same interests and ambitions as you? Why not join them and pool together all the tools and resources?
“We can do a better job together than we can against each other. Why try to split the market? If you’ve 10 good lads in two companies, you can have one company with 20 good lads. They can learn from each other, which means they will all get better, which will have a knock-on effect on the show. Therefore, the show will be better, which might draw more people. The more people who come will tell their friends which will, in turn, draw more people, which will bring in more money. It’s business.”
We were talking about Sheamus before we drifted off on that tangent.
“Yes. I met him a couple of times. I met him at a show once, and then I met up with him in Dublin one time. We went for a coffee or it might have been a beer.”
You must be pleased for him. As WWE World champion for six months straight, Sheamus is one of WWE’s top men.
“Absolutely. He went [to WWE] when the door wasn’t as far open as it is now. He stayed in developmental for a long time, worked his arse off, proved himself against a lot of odds and a lot of people. I’m absolutely delighted for the success he’s had there.”