The tragedy of Tomohiro Ishii is that he works in a field uniquely unsuited to rewarding his talents. Wrestling is an industry of spectacle, flash, high drama and camp. Ishii is a squat, short, middle aged man of few words and fewer flashy moves. If he stands out, it’s only for his comparative lack of major distinguishing characteristics.
Ishii vs Shingo Takagi, G1 Climax 2019, NJPW1972.comTo me, this makes Ishii all the more compelling as a wrestler. He has no particular inborn privileges of physicality or charisma, no theatrics to hide behind, no dramatic character storylines. What makes Ishii an incredible wrestler is his work ethic, and his creative mind. Ishii is the best wrestler of this year (and I’d argue, of the last few years) because he has willed himself to be.
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While Ishii is one of NJPW’s most consistent workers year round (he’s worked over 120 matches this year so far, according to Cagematch), his ability to have a great match with just about anybody is showcased year after year in the G1 tournament. While his strike-based offense is not especially varied, he excels at structuring his matches for maximum drama. They’re always paced beautifully— they never get self indulgent, he never does too much, nor does he ever take the audience’s approval as a given and do too little. He’s not especially charismatic, and his physicality is nothing to write home about (he’s billed at 5’7, but I’ve met him, and that’s generous by at least two inches), but audiences go nuts for him solely because he wrestles in a way that gives them reason to. He’s one of the best no sellers in the business, picking the perfect moments to rise from a chop or a clothesline, hollering at his opponent to give him all they’ve got.
In an industry where so many people run gimmicks into the ground at the first sign of approval, Ishii is always judicious. In another athletic discipline, you might say he plays to his position: he’s always right where you need him to be, doing exactly what needs to be done.
That isn’t to say Ishii is formulaic. He’s not afraid to step out of his comfort zone when the occasion calls for it. The highlight of this year’s G1 for me was his match with Jon Moxley, where the little guy flew off the top rope and into a ringside table, a move that reminded me of when I used to throw old TVs off the top of the parking garage with my hoodrat high school friends. It was completely unexpected, and completely thrilling. It worked precisely because Ishii is conservative about those kinds of high drama moves— unlike a lot of more naturally gifted wrestlers, all of Ishii’s choices in the ring seem thoughtful and intentional. The match helped put over NJPW newcomer Moxley as someone who could work New Japan style matches, and made him seem like a formidable opponent who could drive a competitor as solid as Ishii to take big risks.
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Ishii’s consistency is something of a whetstone for other wrestlers in the company. He’s the perfect babyface to oppose a showboating heel – his match with Taichi in the G1 is a perfect example. No matter what kind of nonsense you’re bringing to the table, Ishii will make it look stupid simply by being himself: you meet Ishii on his terms, no matter what. It’s this kind of stonefaced workmanship that also makes him a wonderful straight man as the frequent tag partner of Yano Toru, NJPW’s best clown.
It’s a shame to me that Ishii’s consistent hard work, especially year after year in the physically grueling G1, is never rewarded with a tournament win. The fact that he’s been so consistently good for the last couple years also works against him: he’s never really had a “breakout year” so much as he’s just gotten incrementally better over time. He’s New Japan’s permanent bridesmaid. But you can’t truly get the most out of the flash and spectacle that makes wrestling special without guys like Ishii, who know how to keep things grounded, who remain thoughtful about how to shape all that showmanship into something compelling on a deeper level. These utility players go especially unrecognized in the world of wrestling, and Ishii is the best of them all.
Recommended 2019 Matches:
- Tomohiro Ishii vs Yuji Nagata New Japan Cup 2019, 3/8/19
- Tomohiro Ishii vs Jon Moxley New Japan G1 Climax 29, 7/19/19
- Tomohiro Ishii vs Tetsuya Naito New Japan G1 Climax 29, 7/24/19
- Tomohiro Ishii vs Toru Yano New Japan G1 Climax 29, 8/4/19
- Tomohiro Ishii vs Shingo Takagi New Japan G1 Climax 29, 8/8/19
- Tomohiro Ishii vs Taichi New Japan G1 Climax, 8/11/19