(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kota Ibushi – NJPW Power Struggle 2017

tanahashi ibushi njpw power struggle 2017

Every wrestling fan knows of one wrestler that they consider the best ever. There have been countless arguments made over which wrestlers deserve to be on the Mount Rushmore of wrestling or which one of them is truly the best of the best.

Many of the most common names thrown about in these discussions have good reasons why they could be considered the best pro-wrestler ever. Lots of names have been thrown into this conversation over the decades: Hulk Hogan, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Rey Mysterio, Kenny Omega, CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, and Kazuchika Okada are among the most revered and admired wrestlers from the past four decades.

Then there’s Hiroshi Tanahashi.

Tanahashi is quite possibly the best pro-wrestler still active today. He is like a Japanese Shawn Michaels mixed with Bret’s technical know-how, Misawa’s tenacity, Austin’s fan admiration, Kobashi’s longevity, Okada’s penchant for outstanding matches, and Hogan’s recognition in Japan. To many people, Tanahashi was and is the real wrestling god (sorry JBL). And one of the people that thought this way was his opponent in the classic match we’re revisiting today.

It’s the big singles match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi from NJPW Power Struggle 2017.

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

There are two stories at play here, a short-term one and a long-term one. In the short-term one, Tanahashi and Ibushi were in the same bracket in the 2017 G1 Climax which took place three months earlier. And when they clashed, Ibushi pinned Tanahashi. And since Tanahashi was a champion, Ibushi earned a right to challenge for Tanahashi’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship, hence this match.

The long-term story is a bit more complex. As the former ace of New Japan and one of the best wrestlers alive, many wrestlers looked up to Tanahashi, including Ibushi. In fact, Ibushi had such praise and admiration for Tanahashi that he saw him as his god. To Ibushi, Tanahashi was the standard-bearer, the measuring stick to which all New Japan wrestlers had to compare themselves. He wanted to become like Tanahashi, and then eventually surpass him.

But Ibushi also found himself at a crossroads of sort. While he basically worshipped the canvas Tanahashi wrestled on, he was also someone that did things his own way. He was a maverick, someone that marched to the tune of his own drum. Like his on-again-off-again friend Kenny Omega, Ibushi wrestled his way, whether people liked it or not. Eventually, Tanahashi became aware of both Ibushi’s talents as a wrestler and of what Ibushi thought of him. And when he did, Tanahashi more or less tried to help Ibushi reach his level, both by giving him advice and by facing him in the ring. Basically, Tanahashi tried to be the compass that Ibushi needed to become a bona fide main-eventer, and part of doing that required that Ibushi wrestle in a different way. Tanahashi didn’t like how Ibushi was influenced by the ‘explosive’ and ‘empty’ wrestling style of Omega and wanted to teach Ibushi how to really wrestle.

That brings us to this match. Both men had something to prove here. Tanahashi wanted to show the world that he was still the godly professional wrestler he had been for years and even in the face of injuries and age, he was still in a league of his own. As for Ibushi, he was heading for arguably the biggest test of his career. He wanted to prove to both the fans and to his god that he was more than just another daredevil ‘spot monkey’ from the independent scene. He wanted to prove that he was, indeed, a great pro-wrestler, and that he could hang with the best of the best.

So with all of that said, who would win: the clever champion with experience on his side, or the fearless challenger willing to take the highest of risks to win?

The match

This match originally took place on November 5th, 2017 at NJPW’s Power Struggle PPV. it was originally rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Looking back four years later, let’s see how well this match holds up.

This is for Tanahashi’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Tanahashi has a torn bicep going into this match. They jockey for control with standing waistlocks followed by an awesome grounded technical exchange. They chain wrestle some more and Tanahashi takes control of Ibushi’s arm, and keeps an armlock cinched despite Ibushi’s attempts at reversal. Ibushi counters the armlock with some kip-ups, but Tanahashi gets a ropebreak and takes control with a hiptoss. He follows with a crazy flying headscissor to keep Ibushi grounded, but Ibushi escapes eventually. They trade headlocks until Ibushi gets to his feet. He sends Tanahashi into the ropes and Tanahashi answers with a shoulder block. Tanahashi thinks Ibushi is down but doesn’t notice Ibushi’s instantaneous kip-up. Tanahashi tries again but Ibushi bounces right back up and gets in Tanahashi’s face. Tanahashi charges but runs into a standing dropkick and rolls out of the ring. Ibushi goes to the corner for his triangle moonsault to the floor but Tanahashi dodges. Ibushi jumps onto the apron, but Tanahashi’s already waiting for him. Tanahashi lands a massive running dropkick to Ibushi’s knee. Ibushi hits the apron hard and falls to the floor.

Tanahashi tosses Ibushi back into the ring and starts working over that now-injured right knee. Ibushi screams out in pain as Tanahashi kicks, stomps, smashes and stretches that knee. Ibushi talks trash and tries to fight his way out of an Indian deathlock but Tanahashi lands his own forearm to keep Ibushi grounded. Ibushi lands another forearm but Tanahashi answers with his first dragon screw leg whip. Ibushi rolls out of the ring thinking he’s safe but Tanahashi follows him and attacks the knee again. He smashes the knee into the side of the ring and Ibushi falls from the apron to the floor. Each time Ibushi tries to fire back with a desperation forearm he struggles to stay standing or put all his strength into his strikes. Knowing this, Ibushi rolls back out to ringside after Tanahashi rolls him back in to escape his opponent. But like a shark sensing blood in the water, Tanahashi follows him and goes back to the knee in the ring. Tanahashi slams Ibushi and goes for a jumping elbow drop. But Ibushi moves and attempts a roundhouse kick (with the bad leg). Tanahashi ducks that, which allows Ibushi to attempt a standing moonsault. Tanahashi rolls away and Ibushi lands on both feet. But in doing so, Ibushi jams his own knee. That’s the price you pay for not adapting your strategy in the ring.

Ibushi stares daggers at Tanahashi as Tanahashi stomps on his knee. Ibushi fires up and starts trading forearms with Tanahashi, but again each strike forces him to stagger and wobble. Ibushi counters a corner Irish whip and Tanahashi charges out of that corner. He goes to dropkick Ibushi’s knee, but by going down like that Ibushi umps up and lands a midair double stomp onto Tanahashi’s chest and hurts his knee some more in the process.

Ibushi lands a KENTA rush, complete with spinkick, but again struggles to maintain momentum due to his knee problems. He follows with a roundhouse kick/shooting star splash combo but once more struggles because of Tanahashi’s earlier legwork taking its toll. Speaking of which, Tanahashi clips Ibushi’s knee and goes for a slingblade. Ibushi counters with a jumping Frankensteiner that sends Tanahashi to the floor. He follows with a successful triangle moonsault to the floor. This guy is simply crazy. He tosses Tanahashi into the ring but as he re-enters through the ropes, Tanahashi lands a second dragon screw. That does extra damage since Ibushi’s body can’t roll with the move to soften the impact.

Ibushi lands a forearm to block another dragon screw and goes for a kick but Tanahashi catches and elbows his leg. Then Tanahashi elbows his other leg but walks into two huge roundhouse kicks. He goes for a third. Tanahashi blocks and connects with a dragon screw. Then he locks in the Texas Cloverleaf submission hold. Ibushi reaches the ropes, so Tanahashi continues the torture by wrapping Ibushi’s knee through the ropes. Tanahashi goes for a corner charge. Ibushi blocks and gets him onto his shoulders and then onto the top turnbuckle. Ibushi follows with a Nakamura-style corner kneelift. Ibushi follows by trying to land the deadlift over-the-rope German suplex. Tanahashi elbows out and lands another through-the-ropes dragon screw. Ibushi falls to the floor as Tanahashi goes to the top rope. High Fly Flow onto Ibushi. What an insane dive.

Back in the ring, Tanahashi goes for a slingblade but Ibushi dodges. They trade waistlocks until Tanahashi attempts a German suplex. Ibushi lands on his feet and goes for a lariat. Tanahashi ducks and lands a slingblade for a two-count. Tanahashi goes to the top rope. Ibushi cuts him off with a backflip kick. Tanahashi slumps down, still on the top rope, as Ibushi crawls onto the apron. Springboard top-rope Frankensteiner! Tanahashi kicks out. Ibushi goes for his Kamigoye knee strike finisher. Tanahashi blocks it by crossing Ibushi’s arms. Then he goes for another dragon screw. Ibushi answers with a knee with his free leg. Then he picks Tanahashi up…and lawn darts him into the corner. Damn, what a brutal move. Ibushi’s not done. He connects with the over-the-rope deadlift German suplex. He pins but Tanahashi still kicks out. Ibushi goes to the top rope. Phoenix Splash…misses. Tanahashi does the same. High Fly Flow…also misses. The fans chant for both wrestlers as they struggle to get up.

Ibushi gets up first and lands a forearm, but Tanahashi answers with some massive bitchslaps. Ibushi does down, so Tanahashi drags him back up and lands another slap. But this time Ibushi’s different. He no-sells and gives Tanahashi that cold, dead stare. Here comes his alter-ego: Murder Ibushi. Ibushi lands some truly sickening palm strikes to Tanahashi’s head and chest. The referee demands he stop and as Ibushi turns his head Tanahashi fires back with more slaps. Suddenly the two men start hitting each other in the face as hard as they can. Ibushi takes control with a pump kick that sends Tanahashi back into the corner. He starts hammering on Tanahashi with all his might. The referee starts counting as a warning, but when he gets to four Ibushi turns to him and grabs his arm. he stomps the hell out of Tanahashi’s face as he stares at the referee. But as the ref admonishes him, Tanahashi powers up. He lands a flurry of slaps and forearms. But then Ibushi fires back. LARIATO! Both men collapse again.

Ibushi gets up first and drops Tanahashi with a Last Ride Powerbomb for two. Ibushi attempts a Phoenix-plex but can’t do it due to his own exhaustion. Tanahashi takes advantage with triple twisting neckbreakers. Ibushi powers through and lands a roundhouse kick to the side of Tanahashi’s head. Ibushi signals the end and pulls his kneepad down. He goes for Kamigoye. Tanahashi dodges and lands a slingblade. He goes for a dragon suplex. Ibushi escapes and goes for another roundhouse. Tanahashi ducks and lands a bridging dragon suplex. One, two, Ibushi kicks out. High Fly Flow connects to Ibushi’s back. Tanahashi flips him over and goes back to the top rope. Another High Fly Flow. One, two, three! There’s the match! Tanahashi wins!

Winner and STILL IWGP Intercontinental Champion after 29:26: Hiroshi Tanahashi


This match was freaking awesome. Just great in pretty much every way. It was yet another example of New Japan’s greatness in this day and age. It went almost thirty minutes but it never felt slow. It had the right pacing, great back-and-forth drama, lots of intense action, and the insane and an unpredictable closing sequence that NJPW has become famous for showcasing. For the main-event of an otherwise forgettable B-level PPV, they don’t get much better than this.

Tanahashi was in his element here as he put on a masterclass on how to make the most out of so little. He had a noted injury (which, strangely, Ibushi did not try to exploit), so he made the most out of a handful of moves, most notable the dragon screw leg whip. That has long been one of Tanahashi’s signature moves but here he used it to maximum effect. It was one of the first moves he landed to weaken Ibushi’s offensive game, and each time it looked like Ibushi would hit a big move or regain control of the match, Tanahashi shut him down with a DSLW. Tanahashi wrestled smartly here and still managed to put on an incredible performance and tell an amazing story. He forced Ibushi to bring his A-game, which included a sudden visit from his merciless alter-ego. And even though Tanahashi resorted to some outright heelish tactics, the fans still cheered loudly for him. It’s simply astonishing just how tremendous of a wrestler Tanahashi was (and still is). Even though most people were talking about Omega and Okada in 2017, Tanahashi was right behind them throughout the year, putting on masterclass after masterclass. It’s no wonder so many fans still call Tanahashi the best wrestler on the planet to this day.

As for Ibushi, he did great here. He was the underdog facing off against a man he considered his god. He hit incredibly hard here and fought through immense pain courtesy of Tanahashi’s incredible strategy. He had to fight from underneath and struggled to maintain any sense of control as Tanahashi demolished his knee unrelentingly and with surgical precision. So when Ibushi did manage to fire up, it was exciting. He did a much better job of selling knee damage than he usually does, which made this match feel more realistic and his struggle more believable, at least for the most part.

The only thing, the ONLY thing that prevents this match from being completely flawless and worthy of a genuine 5-star rating is Ibushi’s inconsistent leg selling. I’ve seen that several times in other big matches that took place both before and after this match and it’s such a common issue that acts as a single blemish on an otherwise perfect canvas. Here, Tanahashi attacked Ibushi’s knee with laser focus early on in the match. He hit one move to Ibushi’s knee after another, and the severity of these moves was sold by Ibushi’s motions and facial expressions, and by the commentators’ tone. Yet minutes later, Ibushi went back to landing his flippy moves and trying to land kicks with the bad leg. It was a moment of blatant stupidity in an otherwise airtight match built on logical psychology. One of Ibushi’s signature characteristics is his kickboxing background. But in this match, Tanahashi had damaged one of Ibushi’s limbs to the point that everything, from doing any lifting to simply standing up, caused him immense pain.

Knowing he was in that situation, why would Ibushi – or any wrestler, for that matter – start going for dives and flips? If a wrestler or even an MMA fighter has a devastating right hand punch and they spend two minutes in an excruciating MMA-style cross armbreaker and the match hasn’t ended yet, would said wrestler go for a right hand punch moments after escaping that hold? No, they wouldn’t, because they wouldn’t have any power in their strike and they’d risk further damage to that limb. It’s common sense, but that seemed to elude Ibushi here. He just had to get his signature moves in, including his various flips, dives, splashes, and kicks, all of which required two fully-functioning legs to execute perfectly. By doing what he usually did, Ibushi rendered Tanahashi’s smart legwork far less effective, which in turn weakened the structural integrity of the match’s story. That no-selling hurt Tanahashi because it made his offense look weaker, and it hurt Ibushi because he would’ve looked better fighting from beneath in an extended struggle to overcome pain instead of no-selling altogether.

Final Rating: ****3/4

Despite that one blemish, this was one hell of a great match. It was a terrific example of one wrestler making the most out of so little and the other doing his best to overcome the odds. Ibushi tried to fight through the pain and do what he did best, but Tanahashi was simply too smart and too experienced to fall to Ibushi’s tricks.

It was poetic in a sense. Ibushi viewed Tanahashi as his god and tried to beat him with a new finishing move literally named ‘greater than god’. But Tanahashi (the god) knew of that weapon and rendered it more or less obsolete by the match’s end. By that point, Ibushi’s obsession with landing that very move is what led to his downfall. In the end, Ibushi was left humbled by the man he tried so hard to surpass.

All in all, a great match worthy of re-watching, with or without the backstory, context and subtleties.