(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Tomohiro Ishii vs. Hirooki Goto – NJPW Power Struggle 2014

njpw ishii goto 2014

Anyone that has followed New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) for the past decade or so has heard or read the name Tomohiro Ishii.

Ishii was and is to New Japan what guys like Cesaro and Ricochet have been in WWE: extremely talented in the ring yet stuck in booking purgatory. And like those WWE guys, Ishii has cultivated a huge following of loyal fans that hope that Ishii will be rewarded “properly” for his skills someday.

I’ve seen several Ishii matches so far in this reviews series and so far I’ve been veryimpressed. He might not look like much but he’s one of the toughest sonsofbitches still active today. His matches are as captivating as they are surreal. The guy takes seemingly inhuman punishment and keeps moving forward and dishes it out in equal measure. Fans have affably referred to him as something like a refrigerator or a fire hydrant that learned how to wrestle because of his reputation mixed with how he looks. And today we look back at another one of Ishii’s supposed best matches to see if it still fits that billing.

Today we look back at Ishii’s NEVER title defense against Hirooki Goto from NJPW Power Struggle 2014.

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.

The story

On October 25th, 2014, Goto pinned Ishii in a tag team match to set this match up. And since champions of any kind rarely took falls in New Japan, even in tag matches, this was enough for Goto to earn a title shot, even though he didn’t want it. You see, Goto had other plans in mind that didn’t involve Ishii’s NEVER title, or any other title for that matter. New Japan’s roster has long been deadlocked in a never-ending game of ‘faction warfare’. Pretty much everyone in New Japan belongs to one stable or another. As of May 2022, there are eight factions in NJPW: CHAOS, Los Ignobernables de Japón, Suzuki-Gun, Bullet Club, BC’s sub-unit House of Torture, Guerillas of Destiny, United Empire, and the Main Unit/Seikigun (“regular army”). In 2014, Goto was part of the Main Unit and wanted to recruit more members to it. He wanted to add Ishii to his ranks, hoping he’d join Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata. However, Ishii remained loyal to CHAOS and stuck with his buddies Shinsuke Nakamura and Kazuchika Okada. Goto hoped that beating Ishii would make him change his mind. And if that weren’t enough, maybe taking Ishii’s title from him would make for a more convincing argument.

The match

This match took place on November 8, 2014 at NJPW’s annual Power Struggle event. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Meltzer also praised it as a bona fide MOTYC, with his only criticism being that it should’ve been saved for Wrestle Kingdom two months later. With such high praise, let’s see how well this match holds up.

This is for Ishii’s NEVER Openweight Championship. Goto applies a headlock but Ishii shoots him into the ropes and stays in place on a shoulder tackle spot. Ishii charges and this time Goto doesn’t budge. They run into each other a few more times and then trade forearms for a very long time. Goto appears to get the upper hand but Ishii fights through the pain and taunts him. They go forehead-to-forehead and run into each other and Goto knocks Ishii down, which gets loud applause.

Goto snapmares Ishii and kicks his spine but Ishii gets angry and bounces right up. He and Goto trade chest chops as the crowd chants along with each strike. Ishii tries absorbing them but he starts to falter as Goto mocks him. He hits Ishii some more but Ishii fires back with a chop to Goto’s throat. Ishii hits another one followed by a chop/elbow combo against the ropes. Now it’s Ishii’s turn to s**t-talk Goto and Goto hits back but Ishii doesn’t even flinch. Then Ishii drops Goto with an elbow and starts kicking Goto’s head mockingly. Goto gets angry and starts no-selling Ishii’s offense. Ishii charges at him and unloads with more strikes but Goto tanks all of them like a boss and fires back with a huge elbow of his own. Ishii staggers and makes it to his feet so Goto kicks him hard in the chest.

Ishii elbows out of a rear waistlock and charges but Goto chases him. Goto fails to confuse Ishii but he does manage to reverse a corner whip and hit a corner wheel kick/Backdrop suplex combo for a two-count. Goto hits more chest kicks but Ishii starts tanking them again. Goto tries forearms to the head but Ishii no-sells those, too. Goto hits Ishii as hard as he can but Ishii pushes forward with each one and asks for more. Then Ishii drops Goto with a big forearm of his own and then staggers over. That’s why Ishii’s so great. He will do anything do not let his opponent see his expressions of pain and will delay selling as much as possible.

Ishii lands a backdrop suplex but only manages a two-count. He follows with a delayed second-rope superplex for another two-count. Goto resists and then powers out of a powerbomb and then hits an enzuigiri but Ishii tanks it. Goto crisscrosses with him and hits a lariat followed by an Olympic Slam for another two-count. The crowd’s getting more mixed now instead of being solidly pro-Ishii as they were at first. Ishii elbows out of an ushigoroshi and goes for a lariat but Goto strikes Ishii’s arm with his own. Goto swings for a lariat but Ishii hits his arm this time. Goto blocks an enzuigiri and hits a lariat with full force. But Ishii doesn’t budge. Goto hits a second one. Ishii bounces into the ropes and lariats Goto. Goto bounces back and hits a third lariat. Another lariat by Ishii. Then by Goto. Ishii. Goto. Ishii falls forward but remains on his feet. Goto hits yet another lariat. Ishii jumps up and lands one as well. Double lariats. Both men collapse.

Both wrestlers fight to their feet and Ishii hits first with an elbow. They trade elbows and then try and confuse each other by running the ropes. Ishii ducks a lariat and hits Goto’s ushigoroshi fireman’s carry knee neckbreaker on Goto. Ishii follows with a Folding powerbomb. One, two, Goto kicks out. Ishii hits a top-rope superplex this time but can’t pin right away, and when he does pin Goto kicks out.

Ishii goes for a Brainbuster but Goto powers out. Ishii charges for a lariat but Goto counters into an ushigoroshi of his own. Both wrestlers collapse again and Ishii’s bleeding from his mouth. Both of them get to their knees and start trading elbows. They continue this strike exchange on their feet until Ishii lands some one-two elbow combos. Goto hits back with a head-butt. Ishii elbows out of a Backdrop and hits an enzuigiri but Goto powers up. Another double-lariat spot. They lariat each other three more times. Goto drops Ishii on the next charge and pins. One, two, Ishii kicks out at one!

Ishii resists a powerbomb at first but Goto lifts him up and lands a Dominator to the knee. Goto lands another ushigoroshi. Goto goes for a lariat but Ishii hits first with a head-butt. Goto lands yet another lariat for a two-count and goes for the Shouten Kai (vertical suplex Rock bottom) but Ishii escapes and lands another head-butt. Another elbow and a head-butt drop Goto. Ishii goes for a sliding lariat but Got lariats him first. Both of them collapse yet again. Goto charges for a lariat but Ishii hits a big one first. Goto kicks out of a pin at one so Ishii hits his sliding lariat. One, two, Goto kicks out. Sheerdrop Brainbuster connects. One, two, and three!

Winner and STILL NEVER Openweight Champion after 17:15: Tomohiro Ishii


If you believe that pro wrestlers are tough bastards that can take abnormal amounts of punishment, boy do I have the match for you. This was one of the most exciting and brutal brawls I’ve seen in a long time. There was nothing fancy here. The wrestlers threw away such concepts as ‘working a limb’, tactics, or strategy. Instead, it was a manly bomb-fest between two seemingly-unbreakable warriors. It was a classic hoss fight that also lived up to the Japanese notion of wrestling as a combat sport. I thoroughly enjoyed this match and I think you will too.

This match followed the typical Ishii big match formula: throw niceties and technique out the window and hit as much as possible as hard as possible in as little time as possible. He hit hard and got hit equally hard. Both he and Goto trash-talked each other to make sure they brought out their best. Goto tried his best to stay on Ishii’s level and lasted way longer than expected in doing so. I thought he’d crumple and give up the tough guy façade that Ishii does so well way earlier. Instead, Goto went toe-to-toe with Ishii and fought valiantly to the very end. But as solid as Goto was, this was Ishii’s match. Even though he was the champion he was the underdog that had something to prove here. He took another savage beating and kept going. He was the textbook definition of tough here as he refused to show Goto even the slightest hint of pain. Throughout the match Ishii fought to both endure Goto’s offense and will his own body forwards and ignore his body screaming at him to slow down and register pain properly. All the small gestures and no-selling moments Ishii did throughout the match made him come across as superhuman, which in many ways is what pro-wrestlers are expected to be in the first place.

And best of all, the wrestling here was tense. Like in the best matches from 1990s All Japan, these two wrestlers made every second count. You couldn’t tell whether a move would land, be blocked, get absorbed, or avoided. They kept viewers guessing what would happen next each time they ran into each other. Both wrestlers targeted each other’s neck with big moves and lariat to soften then up for their respective finishers. And by the end, both had some such a great job that pretty much all the near-falls were actually believable. The audience was loud and engaged for pretty much the whole match because of how hard Ishii and Goto were hitting each other. These two were embodiments of fighting spirit here.

The only reason this match isn’t a full 5-stars is because its biggest strength is also its greatest weakness. The non-stop bomb-fest these two put on was entertaining and brutal, true, but it was also a bit over-the-top. Did they have to lariat each other like twenty times? Was it necessary for them to have so hit each other so hard only to kick out at one? Personally, I don’t think so. To me, some of that stuff it a bit too unrealistic. I prefer the idea of matches building up in a linear way. Get your one-counts early on, then build up increasingly-believable two-counts, and then win with a three-count (or a submission, if you’re feeling extra creative).

Don’t get me wrong; I like seeing Ishii make his opponent s**t themselves when he kicks out at one as much as the next guy, but I don’ think such a big kick-out should be used so often. It seems like a calling card of his to the point that it has almost become an overplayed trope. Why bother throwing bombs at him at all when you know he’ll kicks out at one eventually? It was also hard to believe at a few points especially as both wrestlers sprinted around so much. And while this issue wasn’t as glaring as it might be in a cruiserweight match, it was still a bit over-the-top seeing two hosses hit each full force, go down, and then run around again as if they managed to recharge their batteries in no time flat.

Final Rating: ****3/4

How Tanahashi vs. Shibata was voted Match of the Year for 2014 over this one is ridiculous. This was awesome. It was both a gladiatorial fight and a nonstop case of one-upmanship. Both wrestlers left this match looking like superhuman warriors after both hitting each other so hard and absorbing so much punishment. If you like your wrestling serious, manly, brutal, and realistic, this match will satisfy you and then some.

What’s perhaps the funniest part out of all of this is that this is a match between two midcarders. Neither Goto nor Ishii were in world title conversations much, if at all, at this point. And yet, here they were competing for a tertiary title (that, in storyline context, Goto didn’t even care about) and putting on one of the best matches of the year, if not the best. If this isn’t a perfect example of elevating lower-card wrestlers by letting them truly showcase what they can do, I don’t know what is.

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.