Everyone loves seeing a happy ending in pro-wrestling, but they aren’t always done well. Some companies insist on always sending their fans home happy, but that philosophy can and does have dire consequences if done too often as familiarity breeds contempt. The better approach – as seen with this match – is to present those ‘happy endings’ more as fables that don’t come true very often. But when they do – again, as seen here – they lead to absolutely great things.
Today we look back at one of the best examples of an underdog story in modern pro-wrestling. it featured one guy who had spent years as an otherwise forgettable small bit player take on the biggest star in the company. But it wasn’t a one-sided squash; instead, it was a career-defining performance that helped change the direction one company went in for the better.
It’s the big singles match between NJPW ace Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tomohiro Ishii from the 2013 G1 Climax tournament.
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 G1 Climax is special in New Japan for a bunch of reasons. It’s one of the few times during the entire calendar year that shows are devoted to singles matches exclusively. The rest of NJPW’s touring schedule features lots of four, six, eight and ten-man tag matches. And secondly, a wrestler’s entire career can take a sudden turn for the better if they perform well during this tournament. Such was the case for Tomohiro Ishii.
Ishii debuted in New Japan in 2005 but spent the first seven years doing very little. He was mostly relegated to inconsequential multi-man matches and never really got a chance to shine. Then in 2012, he started getting title shots, but for lower-level titles like the NEVER Openweight Championship and different tag titles. Then in early 2013 he challenged Masato Tanaka for the NEVER title but came up short. Despite that loss, he was praised for his brutality and toughness. Word soon spread of this toughness and grit of Ishii’s to the point that he started getting an organic fan following. It was as if his inner fighting skills had suddenly been awakened. NJPW’s bookers saw this and decided to give Ishii a chance. Thus, Ishii entered his first G1 in the A Block. But this block was full of other heavy hitters, including then-world champion Kazuchika Okada, Katsuyori Shibata, and Ishii’s opponent in this match, Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Going into this match, Tanahashi was at the very top of the company, despite not being the world champion. He was the company’s ace and known the world over as arguably the best active pro-wrestler alive. So when this match-up was announced, few people had reason to believe Tanahashi would lose. Tanahashi was both a superior grappler and was way higher on the New Japan totem pole. No matter how you looked at it, the idea that Ishii – a lifelong lower midcarder with precious little to his name – could beat Tanahashi – the company’s decorated ace with almost godlike wrestling skills – seemed ludicrous. But crazier things had happened before in New Japan and the fans wanted to see something different.
So the question on everyone’s mind was, ‘could Ishii do it?’ Could this undercarder that resembled a fire hydrant in bike shorts topple the best pro-wrestler in the world at the time? Or would the ace maintain his status and send Ishii back to the pits from whence he had come?
This match originally took place on August 2nd, 2013, on the second night of the 2013 G1 Climax Tournament. It was originally rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well this match holds up now.
The crowd appears to be more behind Ishii, which surprises Tanahashi. But being the pro that he is, Tanahashi shifts gears seconds into the match and starts acting more heelish with dirty breaks on the ropes and the crowd boos. Tanahashi maintains control early as the crowd booing gets louder. Ishii tries to escape a cravate hold with a scoop slam but Tanahashi holds on. Ishii gets a ropebreak but Tanahashi takes his time letting go. The crowd starts cheering loudly as Ishii unloads with forearms and head-butts and then foot chokes Tanahashi in a corner. Tanahashi blocks a corner charge and lands a crossbody and Ishii goes to the floor. Tanahashi gives chase but Ishii counters his attack and sends him into the barricade. Tanahashi goes for a counter charge but Ishii counters with a powerslam onto the ringside mats. Ishii smashes Tanahashi into the barricade one more time before tossing him back into the ring.
In the ring, Ishii lands some head-butts but Tanahashi no-sells defiantly. They start trading stiff forearms and Tanahashi briefly gains control until Ishii lands some exceptionally stiff forearms that send Tanahashi into a corner. Ishii chops the s**t out of his chest, Tanahashi tries to fight back with a boxing combination, and Ishii fires up and lands an even stronger strike combination in return. The crowd boos again as Tanahashi counters a corner whip and lands both a crossbody and a flying forearm. Tanahashi goes for a dragon screw, Ishii powers out and charges, but walks into a dropkick to his knee. He tries to fight through it but Tanahashi stops him in his tracks with a successful dragon screw leg whip. Ishii escapes to the floor but is met with a baseball slide dropkick and a springboard plancha. This time Tanahashi does get some minor applause.
Tanahashi slams Ishii and poses for a second-rope senton but Ishii rolls out of the way at the last second. Ishii uses Tanahashi’s cockiness to his advantage and lands a big running corner clothesline. He charges again but Tanahashi goes for a dropkick. Ishii tanks that kick and charges again. Tanahashi ducks and then charges. Ishii catches him from behind and lands a big German suplex. Tanahashi powers through and lands a dropkick. Both men collapse. The crowd is now chanting for both men equally.
Both men get to their feet and Ishii demands that Tanahashi hit him and Tanahashi obliges. They trade 32 stiff forearms between them until Tanahashi lands a big uppercut. But Ishii answers that with a HUGE bitchslap. Both men stagger. Ishii strikes first with a Backdrop suplex and a Folding powerbomb. One two, Tanahashi kicks out. Ishii charges for a lariat. Tanahashi ducks and goes for a slingblade. Ishii connects with a counter lariat and charges again. Tanahashi lands a slingblade and goes for a dragon suplex. Ishii escapes but Tanahashi traps his arms and lands a bridging German suplex. One, two, Ishii kicks out.
Tanahashi slams Ishii and goes to the top rope but Ishii hits the ropes and Tanahashi drops down. Ishii follows with a delayed superplex and signals the end. Folding Last Ride powerbomb. One, two, th—no, Tanahashi kicks out. Ishii goes for a Brainbuster. Tanahashi escapes into a dragon sleeper. Ishii escapes that and head-butts him. LARIATO! Ishii drills Tanahashi with a massive lariat. One, two, thr—no, Tanahashi survives again. This place is coming unglued.
Ishii charges again and lands a lariat to the back of Tanahashi’s head. But Tanahashi doesn’t go down. Ishii charges again. Tanahashi counters into a dragon sleeper again and then drops an elbow across Ishii’s throat. Awesome counter. Tanahashi charges again. More counter-wrestling ensues. Tanahashi lands a dragon suplex. Ishii gets to his feet and staggers about. Slingblade connects. Ishii kicks out yet again. Bridging dragon suplex. Ishii survives. Tanahashi sprints to the top rope. High Fly Flow misses. Ishii goes for a cradle pin. One, two, NO, Tanahashi barely escapes at 2.99! This is insane.
Both men struggle to get up and start head-butting each other and then trade forearms. Ishii eats Tanahashi’s forearms for breakfast and starts hitting Misawa-style one-two elbow combos. Tanahashi answers with a desperation head-butt and goes for another dragon suplex. Ishii head-butts out and Tanahashi slaps him so hard he spins into an enzuigiri. Ishii follows with a Brainbuster. One, two, no, Tanahashi kicks out. Ishii picks him up again…and lands a Steiner Screwdriver! Suplex into a Piledriver! Holy s**t, what a move.
One, two, three! There’s the match. Ishii pins the ace!
Winner after 17:42: Tomohiro Ishii
That was outstanding. It was a classic underdog story with Ishii overcoming insurmountable odds. And in the end, he achieved the seemingly impossible. He beat Tanahashi clean as a sheet. Not only was this a great story with a nice happy ending, but the journey there was filled with solid wrestling, short as it was.
This match had such a great story. Tanahashi was New Japan’s ace and beloved hero, but Korakuen Hall was behind Ishii on this night. They wanted to see him win this big match in his first G1 Climax. It took Tanahashi only a few seconds to realize this, and once he did, he switched things up. He wrestled as overtly heelishly as he possibly could. He wrestled the match that the fans wanted and played his role perfectly. Here, Tanahashi wasn’t the smiling goody-two-shoes but a seemingly-impossible mountain for Ishii to climb. Tanahashi out-grappled Ishii whenever possible and acted cocky throughout the match. After all, he had no reason to believe Ishii was a major threat considering Ishii had been a lower-card guy for almost a decade.
But that arrogance cost Tanahashi badly. No matter what he did, Ishii kept pushing forward. Tanahashi tried everything he possibly could to keep Ishii down but none of it worked. Ishii was The Little Engine That Could in this match and he won it in the end. Ishii won the match by doing what he did best: hitting extremely hard and absorbing damage like a boss. Tanahashi tried to go strike-for-strike with Ishii and failed. Ishii smashed Tanahashi to pieces with insanely stiff strikes and huge bombs. Each time Tanahashi looked like he had the advantage, Ishii would pop right back up or no sell. There were a few points when Ishii smack-talked Tanahashi and demanded that he hit him. Ishii was such a boss here. He entered this match hoping to win, but he and most fans saw that as an unlikely pipe dream. But as Ishii fought and survived, that dreamed etched ever closer to reality.
Ishii found a winning formula in this match when he just spammed high-impact moves and absorbed whatever punishment was thrown at him. It wasn’t the most complex strategy, but it worked wonders. Ishii answered Tanahashi’s technical grace with hardnosed brawling, and it was Ishii’s strategy that won in the end. As for Tanahashi, he lost nothing in defeat here. In fact, he actually looked good because Ishii had to spike him with one high-impact bomb after another to keep him down.
With this monumental victory, Ishii found a winning wrestling style that would solidify his status as an upper midcarder that isn’t to be taken lightly. Most of his subsequent big matches would be defined by his intense, no-nonsense brawling and his superhuman toughness. Even by New Japan standards, Ishii became arguably the toughest guy in the entire company. And just two nights after this match, Ishii went on to fight in what is widely considered one of the best under-fifteen minute matches of all time.
But is this match perfect? Ehh, not quite. Though it’s undeniably great, I just got the feeling that it was missing something. It was definitely intense and the action was awesome. But the match also lacked a bit in terms of drama. Though the fans wanted to see Ishii win and got what they wanted in the end, Tanahashi’s contributions to the match weren’t that deep or serious. Tanahashi only showed samples of his greatness here and never went very deep with his smart wrestling. Compared to how Tanahashi usually wrestled, I never got the sense that Ishii was in any real danger. Tanahashi tried playing Ishii’s game of trading big bombs and was on the losing side from almost the beginning. I get that the match was laid out to benefit Ishii, and yet Tanahashi should’ve hit a few more big moves or done more to weaken Ishii before being pummeled. But these are minor gripes in an otherwise terrific match.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Even a broken clock is right twice a day and that’s the case here. This match was amazing for what it was but just narrowly missed out on reaching that higher echelon of perfect, legendary matches. I think that it would’ve been better if it went longer and had more drawn-out drama with Ishii having to overcome not just Tanahashi, but a full-on Tanahashi at his best. I don’t think Tanahashi busted out everything he could in this match, which made Ishii’s satisfying victory less cathartic than it could’ve been.
That said, this is still one of the best matches of Ishii’s career and another example of Tanahashi’s greatness. It was the perfect storm of several elements all coming together at the same time: Ishii being an underdog, his fans wanting to see him win a big match, and Tanahashi being the right guy to give them exactly that. It’s a perfect example of giving vocal wrestling fans exactly what they want without anyone really losing out in any major way. Ishii had a career milestone, Tanahashi showed off more of his talent and looked tough in defeat, the fans got the fairytale ending they wanted, and New Japan had another star to add to the mix of credible G1 performers. All-around wins like that don’t happen often.