NJPW: The Struggle of Tomohiro Ishii, Wrestling’s Truest Professional


NJPW’s Tomohiro Ishii never needed a world title to make him great.

Standing at just 5-foot-7, Tomohiro Ishii has been looked over for years both in size and in potential. His career began in 1996 in the small WAR promotion that was run by Genichiro Tenryu. As that went defunct, Ishii began to hone his craft while freelancing amongst other small promotions in Japan.

In 2004, Ishii began making scattered appearances in New Japan before getting a full-time gig during 2006. It took Ishii 10 years to land another full-time spot, but from there, Ishii was merely treated as a solid midcard hand. He was never seen as main event material by New Japan brass, and at that time, it was very understandable. Most of his career had been very forgettable.

Prior to 2012, Tomohiro Ishii was never part of any memorable angles or matches. It took him eight years in the company for him to even receive a proper world title match which he ended up losing to now CHAOS partner Hirooki Goto. He continued to struggle standing out.

Then the NEVER Openweight Title was introduced. A tournament to crown the inaugural champion was held that November, and Ishii made it to the semi-finals before falling to Masato Tanaka. Ishii’s rematch against Tanaka the following February is the match where the cult-like legend of the Stone Pitbull may have been born, but it was the semi-final match where it was conceived.

The thing that made these matches so special was the true struggle. They weren’t matches; they were wars. Everything hurt. Every chop, headbutt, kick or punch was harder than the one before until someone eventually began running out of steam, and in both instances, just like against Goto, that someone was Ishii.

It was bitter but almost darkly poetic for his career. Ishii worked his way up the ladder only to come up short yet again, but who he didn’t come up short with was the fans. They began to notice the fights he would put up, and even when in a losing effort, his ability to steal the show and truly encapsulate the “fighting spirit” basis of strong style began to win people over, and this reached its peak at the G1 Climax 23 in the summer of 2013.

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The G1 Climax 23 was where this article’s basis comes from. Aside from Ishii’s incredibly relatable struggle to create an indent in New Japan’s history, it was his match with Katsuyori Shibata that encompassed everything that’s right about professional wrestling.

With the end reward of the entire G1 Climax tournament being a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan’s ultimate stage, everyone involved is willing to give their all in order to have that one chance for a moment of glory. However, this one match, this one historical moment gave us so much more than that.

This was Shibata’s first G1 Climax since his return after leaving New Japan in 2004 when they needed him most. Shibata’s return was met with little fanfare, and the locker room separated themselves from him immediately, more specifically New Japan’s Ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Shibata took the G1 as his chance to show that he belonged.

On a similar note, Tomohiro Ishii was also out to show that he belonged, but he wasn’t out to show that he belonged in New Japan like Shibata. Ishii had already proven that. He was a loyal company guy through and through, but he was out to prove he belonged with the top names of the company. This led to a legendary clash of strong style titans.

As soon as the bell rang, it was all out brutality with absolutely nothing held back. For just over 12 minutes, these two unloaded with the stiffest strikes ever seen in a wrestling ring with Ishii getting the win, but Shibata proving that he belonged as well. It was the rare instance where one man may have won the match, but two stars were created out of it. Ishii got another big win in the twenty-third rendition of the G1 Climax, but at what cost?

A match like that is good enough to put anyone down for a few months to heal, but Ishii didn’t have a few months to recover; he only had 48 hours. A broken down Ishii would fail to win a match for the rest of the tournament, gaining points only via a forfeit win against Hirooki Goto. In this instance, winning the battle at all costs led to losing the war, but Ishii’s willingness to go all out against Shibata helped revive the man known as The Wrestler’s career.

To this day, Ishii continues to be New Japan’s most legitimate wrestler. Not most acclaimed, not the man with the most wins or titles won, but the most legitimate. He has never held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship nor the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, but that doesn’t phase him. It never has.

As much as it’s been a road paved with the blood, sweat, and opponent’s tears of his struggle, it’s led to a new road. That of respect. His feuds in 2017 with Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito ended in losses for Ishii, but it’s helped both men flourish atop the card even through today

Everyone knows, from his opponents to the announcers to the fans watching live or at home, a win over the Stone Pitbull means more than most any other win because he makes you earn it. If you don’t hit him hard enough, he will mock you because that’s disrespecting him.

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He wants his opponent to endure the struggle he has gone through to get to this point, and if they are mentally and physically tough enough to survive and win, then they truly embody the fighting spirit that Ishii has made a career out of.