It is a truth universally acknowledged that when it comes to unfairly overlooked wrestlers, Tomohiro Ishii is right up in the top spot. The aptly nicknamed Stone Pitbull has been a staple fixture in New Japan since joining the Great Bash Heel (GBH, geddit?) stable in 2006 with fellow veterans Toru Yano, Togi Makabe and Hiroyoshi Tenzan. But recent years have seen Ishii really come into his own, and the annual G1 Climax tournament has become something of a showcase for Ishii’s unique brand of implacable brutality.
Ishii’s short stature initially saw him thrown in with the Junior Heavyweights. But it soon became apparent that there is more to being a Heavyweight than size. Though unquestionably agile, Ishii never really sat comfortably in a division full of high flyers and fragile speedsters; he is a brick wall of a man, feral in the ring, and the sheer power with which he delivers his blows makes him not just a credible threat, but a force to be reckoned with. Given half the chance, Tomohiro Ishii will destroy you.
There is precious little finesse in an Ishii match. He is not a showy wrestler; there is no theatre in what he does, you might surmise, but there is a theatre in his violence. As with the glowering menace of Minoru Suzuki, Ishii exudes an aura of quiet danger. Unlike Suzuki, he needs no ringside antics to make his point; no menacing of Young Lions or hounding of commentators. Suzuki has turned malicious villainy into an art form, and nobody does it better. But there is something oddly unassuming about Ishii. It is the bristling calm of a dog just before it bites. When Ishii gets in the ring, he speaks with his fists, and increasingly, people are pausing to listen.
Witness his incredible match with Kenny Omega during last year’s G1 Climax, a bout which, if there is any justice in the world, will go down in history as a classic. Riding high on 12 points, the stakes for Omega were purely his pride; should Ishii to defeat him, languishing as he was at the bottom with 4 points, it would be a hell of a way to break Omega’s winning streak. Omega entered the match with customary swagger, the kind of aggressive arrogance that had become his trademark as a wrestler. But it was never destined to be an easy win.
Here’s the thing. Ishii does not just dole out violence (though he does dole it out, very much so.) He also absorbs violence. He absorbs it like a concrete sponge; his capacity for punishment is enormous and terrifying, and there comes a point in every Ishii match where you find yourself asking hasn’t he had enough yet? There is rarely such a thing as ‘enough’ in Ishii’s vocabulary. It is not uncommon for him to actively goad his opponent into hurting him more. Violence is Ishii’s territory; it is where he shines brightest.
The match with Omega was remarkable because not only did Ishii not crumble under the punishment of innumerable V-Triggers, he actually got stronger. Ishii absorbs brutality; he feeds off it, is powered by it. Omega’s bloodied mouth stood gory testament to Ishii’s irrepressible force. There is no part of Ishii that is not a weapon. His arms deliver thunderous lariats. When his limbs aren’t quite doing the trick, he thinks nothing of bringing his own skull into the equation. And if you think Ishii is just a brawler, he can dig deep into a repertoire of pure wrestling manoeuvres, pulling out enzuigiris and brainbusters and suplexes aplenty.
What made the Omega/Ishii match one of the best of an extremely strong tournament was a number of complementary ingredients. Despite Ishii’s formidable power, he was very much the underdog in this bout, pre-emptively outclassed and outmatched by the prodigiously talented Omega. And Omega’s patronising dismissal of Ishii in the early stages of the match compounded an already wildly unstable dynamic. You see, despite his propensity for violence, Ishii is actually a member of babyface stable CHAOS. For all intents and purposes, he is generally the ‘good guy’ in any given situation. So although Omega was enormously popular, Ishii’s defiance and refusal to go down inspired the crowd to cheer him on. Every time he kicked out, the crowd’s support intensified; every time he insolently no-sold one of Omega’s big moves, every time he fought back until the fans were practically begging him to take Omega down. And against all odds, that’s exactly what Ishii did.
Fast forward to this year’s G1, Ishii vs new kid on the NJPW block Jon Moxley proved that even at 43 years old, the Stone Pitbull has not lost his edge. Perhaps more pertinently, it proved that he can still find new and surprising ways to channel his violence. Have you ever seen a fridge fly? That was what it was like to witness Ishii spring from the top rope to the outside, crashing through Moxley and the table propping him up. Ishii’s entire body is a weapon, and he thinks nothing of using it.
Ishii’s style will never be fashionable. For the most part, it’s unsustainable; Ishii has somehow succeeded where Shibata before him sadly fell short. It’s a minor miracle that Ishii, with his penchant for headbutts, has held on to his health. And perhaps it is this which keeps NJPW’s top accolade out of Ishii’s reach. But they are missing a trick. We can only speculate as to how many years Ishii has left in the ring, but it is clear that he has hit his stride later in life – the last five or six years have been his prime, arguably beginning with his victory over Shibata in 2013’s G1 tournament. It has almost become accepted New Japan lore that Ishii can get a good match out of just about anyone. And it feels like a fair reward for years of putting his body literally on the line for Ishii to ascend at last to NJPW’s highest echelons.
All pics and videos courtesy of NJPW