5-Star Match Reviews: Hiromu Takahashi vs. Taiji Ishimori – NJPW Best of the Super Juniors 2018
Do you like your wrestling fast-paced? Do you like seeing wrestlers of any size defying gravity? Do you prefer your wrestling to be as flashy and explosive as possible? Then boy do I have a match for you.
What we’re looking at today is yet another entry in the ‘2018 was awesome’ catalog. It was one of the highest-rated matches of the year, which is saying a lot. It was considered far and away the best cruiserweight match that year, and is considered the best cruiserweight match ever up until 2020. But was it really that great? Let’s look back and find out.
Today we revisit the match between Hiromu Takahashi and Taiji Ishimori from New Japan’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament in 2018.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
This is an interesting match-up between two wrestlers with interesting histories. Ishimori was trained by the legendary Ultimo Dragón, but unlike most of his graduates, Ishimori went to All Japan instead of New Japan after his training was complete. Ishimori then spent twelve years wrestling for Pro Wrestling NOAH and became their biggest junior heavyweight star. Then he left NOAH and joined New Japan as a full-time member of their roster and aligned himself with the Bullet Club faction as the new Bone Soldier, having replaced the old one who was kicked out of the group for his poor performance.
Meanwhile, Hiromu was a pure New Japan creation. First trained by Jedo and Tetsuya Naito, Hiromu spent years working his way up New Japan’s ladder before going on the traditional foreign excursion. For years he called himself ‘Kamaitachi’, name for a demon/monster in Japanese folklore that resembles a dust devil. He dropped that name when he returned in mid-2016 and then became a full-fledged member of his mentor Naito’s Los Ignobernables de Japón stable.
Fast forward to 2018 for the 25th annual BOSJ tournament. Hiromu and Ishimori won their respective blocks and would face each other in the finals and both of them had a lot to prove. Hiromu was a pure New Japan creation and wanted to show the world that he was the next big cruiserweight star. He appeared in BOSJ tournaments before in 2012 and 2013 but only managed one win in 2012 and lost every match in 2013. He tried again in 2017 but ended up in a 5-way tie for second place in his block. Now was his chance. Now was his opportunity to reach the top of the division and become its next ace.
For Ishimori, winning the BOSJ meant even more. He chose a different path after graduating and his success was mixed. He had a short stint with New Japan between 2004 and 2005 that didn’t lead anywhere. He almost won his tournament block back in 2010 when he was an outside participant representing NOAH. And now, after eight years, Ishimori was back in New Japan and wanted to prove redeem himself for his previous career choices. Not only that, but he also had to show the Bullet Club that adding him to their ranks was a smart decision. But could he do it? Could he beat one of NJPW’s top homemade prospects in the biggest juniors tournament of the year?
This match originally took place on June 4, 2018 in the finals of the 25th annual Best of the Super Juniors tournament. It was rated *****1/2 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, so it’s another one of those scale-breaking matches that have been popping up all over the place since 2017. Looking back now, let’s see if this match still lives up to the hype.
Nothing happens for the first minute and then we get a clean break on the ropes. Hiromu ducks a chops and the sprinting madness begins. Irish whip reversal. Hiromu blocks, then counters and hits an elbow. He kicks the rope sending it into Ishimori’s shoulder and lands a running shotgun dropkick. Ishimori ducks a clothesline and hits a running hurricanrana. Hiromu slides to the floor off an Irish whip but Ishimori chases him. But Hiromu gets Ishimori where he wants him. Sunset flip powerbomb – no, Ishimori flips over to escape. Elbow exchange. The two wrestlers brawl far up into the crowd. Hiromu runs from one side of the arena to the other and lands another dropkick. But he’s still not done. Hiromu teases a powerbomb down the stairs. But Ishimori counters with a Frankensteiner. Hiromu goes tumbling down a long flight of stairs. And we’re only five minutes into the match.
The ref begins his count and Ishimori makes it in easily while Hiromu barely gets in before twenty. Ishimori applies a standing cravate hold and knees Hiromu’s head at the same time. Hiromu tries fighting out but Ishimori does a neck twist and then smashes Hiromu into a ringpost and then into a chair. He strangles Hiromu with a chair, which is allowed because the ref is very reluctant to disqualify the wrestlers in such a high-stakes match. Hiromu returns to the ring and eats a chop to the chest. He tries blocking a corner charge but Ishimori shoves his legs aside and kicks his back and hits a running snap draping German suplex. Ishimori pins but only gets a two-count.
Ishimori applies a chinlock but Hiromu elbows out. Hiromu elbows out and charges but runs into a sleeper backbreaker. Hiromu gets a ropebreak so Ishimori chops him in a corner. Hiromu reverses a corner whip but Ishimori flips through the ropes, slides under Hiromu, shoulder checks him through the ropes, and goes for a springboard but Hiromu elbows him to the floor. Hiromu connects with his suicide sunset flip powerbomb to the floor.
The ref starts counting again and Hiromu makes it in quickly while Ishimori makes it just after nineteen. Hiromu hits a basement dropkick for a two-count and then Ishimori reverses his corner whip. Hiromu boots him and locks in a rope-hung Figure-4 neck lock followed by a wheelbarrow facebuster from the ring to the floor. Hiromu continues his assault with a dropkick from the apron to the floor. He throws Ishimori into the ring and hits a top-rope kick for another two-count. Ishimori escapes a fireman’s carry and goes for a German suplex but Hiromu elbows out. Ishimori goes for a handspring attack but Hiromu hits first with a clothesline to the back of Ishimori’s head at the fifteen-minute-mark.
Hiromu tries another fireman’s carry but Ishimori counters into a victory roll for a two-count and then locks in an armtrap crossface. Hiromu wrenches his legs as much as possible until he manages to reach the ropes, which leads to another loud ‘Hiromu’ chant. Ishimori stiffs Hiromu and dares him to hit back. They trade forearms until Hiromu gains the upper hand and charges. But Ishimori ducks a clothesline and hits a headscissor into a long spin back into the crossface. In the middle of the ring. Hiromu tries reaching out to the ropes again, but this time Ishimori rolls them both back to the middle. Great ring awareness. Hiromu continues to struggle and wriggle around, trying to reach the ropes. He reaches out again but this time Hiromu traps his arm. But somehow, somehow, Hiromu gets a ropebreak.
Ishimori charges into a corner but Hiromu sidesteps. Then they reverse roles and Hiromu misses a charge but Hiromu does dodge another attack and goes for a German suplex. Ishimori lands on his feet and charges. Hiromu belly-to-bellys him into the corner and then lands a lariat. Hiromu follows with a Dynamite Plunger fireman’s carry Emerald Flowsion. One, two, Ishimori kicks out. Hiromu hits a corner lariat and follows with an avalanche sunset flip. One, two, Ishimori kicks out. Hiromu follows with a running Death Valley Bomb into the corner and then signals the end. He goes for his Time Bomb finisher but Ishimori escapes. Ishimori blocks a superkick. Hiromu blocks a knee strike and hits a thrust kick. Hiromu charges but runs into a kick from Ishimori. Ishimori follows with a poisoned Frankensteiner. Wait, no, Hiromu bounce up and hits a poisoned rana on Ishimori. Both wrestlers collapse. This is pure lunacy.
The ref begins his count and both get up at seven. They trade elbows from a kneeling position and then while standing. Hiromu crumples first but then tries an elbow combo. Ishimori hits back with a jumping knee to block a corkscrew strike. Ishimori follows with a huge lariat and covers but Hiromu kicks out at one. Ishimori lands a corner shotgun dropkick and then lands running knees. He follows with an inverted Codebreaker and pins but only gets a two-count. Ishimori goes for Bloody Cross but Hiromu escapes via arm drag but jumps into a folding powerbomb. But not only does Hiromu kick out of said powerbomb, he also locks in a triangle choke. The same triangle choke that brought him success earlier in this tournament. Ishimori tries rolling out but Hiromu rolls with him to maintain the hold. Ishimori tries deadlifting Hiromu but Hiromu just tightens the hold. Eventually, Ishimori manages to deadlift Hiromu into a bucklebomb to break the hold at the thirty-minute mark.
Ishimori hits a running corner clothesline and then lands an uranage. He goes for a 450 splash but Hiromu gets his knees up. Ishimori goes for a lariat but Hiromu blocks, spins around, and lands a headscissor takedown back into the triangle hold. Ishimori starts deadlifting like before but Hiromu breaks his own hold and lands a huge butterfly piledriver. Another triangle choke is locked in. Ishimori backs into the ropes to break the hold so Hiromu signals the end. He goes for the Time Bomb. Ishimori blocks and goes for Bloody Cross. Hiromu resists and lands another corner DVB. Time Bomb connects. Hiromu spikes Ishimori with a fireman’s carry swung into an Emerald Flowsion. One, two, and three! There’s the match! Hiromu wins the Best of Super Juniors!
Winner of the 25th Best of the Super Juniors tournament after 34:01: Hiromu Takahashi
That was a crazy match. It definitely lived up to the hype. The action was so frenetic and high-octane that I had to rewind it several times to see what was going on. These two wrestlers moved like lightning and put on one hell of an athletic performance. And even though it was a bit robotic at times, it was fun as hell seeing two smaller wrestlers do some absolutely bonkers things inside the ring, above the ring, and in the stands.
The match was a clash of two different philosophies that sought to achieve the same goal: destroy the opponent’s neck. Ishimori’s was more wrestling-heavy and psychology-driven as he used more submission holds, suplexes, lariats, and power moves, all while limiting the damage done to himself either by his own moves or by his opponent. Ishimori’s submission sequences were great at building tension. He had softened Hiromu’s neck so much that it really looked like Hiromu would indeed tap out at any given moment. But once Hiromu survived that long second time in the crossface, Ishimori’s list of options shortened and he had to resort to trading bombs. But that strategy failed him simply because of how Hiromu wrestled here.
Hiromu wrestled a style that can best be described as ‘reckless’. He threw himself around like a ragdoll and risked everything to beat Ishimori. He sprinted at a blistering pace and ran around the ring like he was trying to cosplay as Usain Bolt. And of course, he ran across the stands for a dropkick and then took a bump down some concrete stairs. Was that dangerous and a tad stupid? Yes, but it was also perfectly in-character for an unpredictable madman like Hiromu. I also liked how Hiromu also did whatever possible to get his triangle choke over in this match. It brought him success earlier in the tournament but he didn’t over-rely on it. He saved it until Ishimori was vulnerable and used it as a last-minute counter to slow Ishimori down after Ishimori had been in the driver’s seat for so long. And once Hiromu started spamming head spikes, it was only a matter of time before he won. He went the extra mile to make Ishimori look good by hitting him with as many spikes as possible, including a nasty poisoned Frankensteiner and a sickening butterfly piledriver.
But it is a 5-Star, cream-of-the-cop classic? Almost, but no.
The biggest problem here was that the match lacked a sense of believability. Even with all the frenetic action, crazy moves, and solid psychology, it was hard to believe that anything was really hurting either guy. I know that the junior heavyweight style is about surrealism, but there’s something special about seeing crazy action and having it complemented by a sense of believability. This was the case as both guys took such punishing hits yet barely slowed down, if at all. There was very minimal sense of progression here. There were so many stop-go-stop-go peak-valley-peak-valley sequences that made the match a bit exhausting and harder to take seriously. Take Hiromu’s fall down the stairs. That was a painful and dangerous spot, yet ten minutes later he was moving as if it never happened. Why do such crazy things if they’re not going to be a part of the match? Doing crazy things has its place, but it doesn’t make sense to that when there’s no reward for such a risk. Ishimori did the same; he took so many brutal moves yet barely sold anything until the very end.
I know the junior heavyweight style is meant to be more daredevil and surreal, but going so far in that direction makes it harder to suspend disbelief. And in the end, being able to suspend disbelief is central to wrestling successfully. If you go too far to just spam ‘MOVEZ’ without pacing things correctly and making things believable, then the match suffers as a result. The wrestlers told their story well, but they also overcomplicated things a bit too much while they were in the process of telling that story.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match is awesome but not in that top tier of greatness. It has some great novelty to it thanks to some ludicrous action in the opening 5-10 minutes that make you question the wrestlers’ sanity. Ishimori makes for a credible threat but Hiromu puts on a much better performance thanks to his recklessness and superhuman ability to sprint like he’s The Flash. Ishimori was also impressive for a guy that tried to keep things slightly more grounded in simpler wrestling, but he too went a bit too far in trying to be as superhuman as possible. And while I applaud the effort, the end result was a match that was exciting yet too surreal and overly-choreographed.
There’s definitely some novelty here that makes it worth watching at least once. Hiromu is a very interesting wrestler to say the least because of his willingness to do some truly crazy things for his craft and Ishimori did a great job keeping pace. And yet, this isn’t some world-beating classic by any means. It’s fun and has some unique moments, but uniqueness and crazy moves alone do not a genuine 5-Star classic make.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.