At its core, pro wrestling is about action and competition. Different promotions have different ways about presenting this action. Some use wacky characters to sell the action, others use long promos to build up the action, and others still deliver the action in a more acrobatic and exaggerated way.
But if you want to strip all of that away and just watch two wrestlers fight or compete without BS, then New Japan has your fix. That has been their MO for decades and their wrestlers have enjoyed tons of critical praise in recent years. Included in all that praise is this intense war that was supposedly so great that it was rated more than 5-Stars. But was it really that great? Let’s find out.
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 was the first-ever match between Ishii and Takagi. Takagi debuted in New Japan and went on an undefeated streak that ended a few months before this match in the finals of the Best of the Super Juniors tournament. But he was so good and so impressive that he wanted to ‘graduate’ to the heavyweight division ASAP. And so, Takagi made his G1 debut in 2019.
However, his momentum wasn’t so ‘meteoric’. Even though he was added to the G1, he hit a wall because he was now competing against heavyweights instead of the junior heavyweights he was accustomed to. That difference in size and wrestling style caused the smaller Takagi to lose more than he won. He lost his first G1 match against Juice Robinson but bounced back with a win over NJPW’s resident troll Toru Yano and then over undercarder Taichi. But then he lost his next four matches to Jon Moxley, Jay White, Jeff Cobb, and Tetsuya Naito. With such a record, Takagi knew he was basically out of the tournament. But he still had two matches left, so he hoped that with those he could still put on a better in-ring performance and get some experience for next year’s tournament.
And as luck would have it, Takagi’s next major opponent was Ishii.
In 2019, Ishii was riding a wave of popularity thanks to his well-earned reputation as the G1 MVP. Ever since 2013, Ishii stole the show every year with awesome matches (or fights, depending on your perspective). He wrestled a one-note style: hit like a runaway freight train and absorb just as much pain himself. But that one-note style was entertaining as hell and made him into a much bigger deal. Everyone from curtain-jerkers to main-eventers had to bring their A-game because Ishii would run through them if they didn’t.
And so Takagi was in for his biggest test in New Japan to date. He was going up against Ishii, perhaps the toughest and most hardnosed brawler in the company. If even certified legends and top-tier stars like Tanahashi, Okada, Omega, Goto, and many others, all struggled to keep Ishii down much less beat him, what hope did Takagi have?
This match originally took place on August 8th, 2019. Dave Meltzer loved it so much he rated it *****1/2, a rating he also gave such incredible matches as Tanahashi vs. Okada X, Ishimori vs. Hiromu, Ishii vs. Omega, Omega vs. Ibushi, and Adam Cole vs. Johnny Gargano.
The crowd is split between both wrestlers as they lock-up and fight to the ropes. Takagi chops Ishii following a clean break but Ishii shoves him back. They lock up again and then do the ‘neither-man-goes-down-on-a-shoulder-tackle-so-let’s-run-into-each-other’ spot several times. They hit each other like two bulls ramming into each other and then switch to ducking lots of strikes. Many elbows, lariats, and kicks that would’ve done lots of damage are all avoided, leading to an early stalemate and loud applause from the audience.
Both wrestlers trade elbows until Takagi bounces off the ropes after a shoulderblock to tackle Ishii to the mat. Takagi drops some elbows and lands a standing senton splash for a one-count. Takagi applies a bodyscissor but Ishii rolls to the ropes to break it up. Then Takagi trash-talks as he lands some kneelifts; but when he charges to the ropes Ishii runs behind him and knocks him down hard. Ishii lands some chops but Takagi gets in his face and hits back with elbows. Ishii fires back with a big chop that downs Takagi and then lands multiple soccer kicks to Takagi’s back and one to the back of his head. Ishii pats Takagi’s head mockingly with his foot and does some trash-talking of his own and manages to rile Takagi up. Takagi hits some stiff chops but Ishii just nods his head and smashes Takagi with chops to his throat.
The two wrestlers trade corner smashes but both of them no-sell. They trade chops like Kobashi and Sasaki until Takagi hits a double hand chop so stiff that Ishii can’t help but sell. Takagi sends Ishii into the ropes and hits a back elbow as Ishii tries charging out. Another quick strike exchange ensues and Takagi counters an Ishii suplex with one of his own. Takagi blocks a kick and hits both a standing clothesline and a running clothesline into the opposite corner. He follows with a falling elbow drop from the top rope but only gets a two-count. Takagi tries a Gory facebuster twice but Ishii blocks both attempts so Takagi spins him into a DDT and follows with a Backdrop suplex for another two-count. Takagi exposes Ishii’s neck and drops some elbows into it and then lands a kneedrop onto Ishii’s head. Then Takagi teases a piledriver but Ishii powers out. Takagi blocks a counter powerslam from Ishii and the two wrestlers do more high-speed countering and avoiding until Ishii connects with a successful swinging powerslam.
Ishii channels Genichiro Tenryu with a corner elbow/chop combo. Takagi retaliates with the same and then switches to punches and head-butts after shoving the referee aside when he tried to get Takagi to stop punching. Takagi mocks Ishii but Ishii opens himself up. as Takagi hits him, Ishii beckons him to keep going. With each stiff elbow/forearm, Ishii takes a big step forward, absorbing each strike as if it’s nothing. Takagi hits Ishii so hard he starts hurting his own arm but Ishii doesn’t even blink or flinch. Ishii head-butts Takagi’s right arm but Takagi blasts him with a lariat with his left arm. Takagi goes for a suplex but Ishii counters with one of his own. As Takagi gets up, Ishii braces and turns his head, pointing to the spot where he wants Takagi to hit him. Takagi obliges and hits Ishii but Ishii replies “I don’t even feel it” and “that’s not good enough”. More stiff elbow exchanges and barrages from both wrestlers. Followed by a pair of running lariats against the ropes. Then both wrestlers collide with more lariats in the middle of the ring. Takagi hits another Backdrop but Ishii bounces right up and hits a Backdrop of his own. Takagi bounces up as well. He goes for a lariat. Ishii ducks and lands another Backdrop. Takagi collapses and Ishii tries getting up but loses his balance and then collapses as well.
Both wrestlers get up slowly and Ishii hits a huge corner lariat and a delayed superplex for a two-count. Takagi resists a powerbomb so Ishii hits some mocking Kawada kicks. Angered, Takagi gets up and lands more stiff strikes but Ishii tanks them and drops him with an elbow smash. Folding powerbomb. Takagi kicks out. Ishii tries a Brainbuster but Takagi blocks and tries his Made in Japan finisher. Ishii elbows out but Takagi drops him with another left-arm lariat at the fifteen-minute mark.
Takagi hits his Gory Facebuster followed by a sliding lariat but only gets a two-count. Takagi goes for Made in Japan but Ishii blocks so Takagi stiff him with another lariat. Ishii staggers so Takagi lariats him again. Ishii does whatever he can to remain standing and in control. Takagi hits a third lariat but this time Ishii doesn’t even move and fires back with a lariat and a head-butt. Ishii goes for his own sliding lariat. Takagi blocks, fights up, and hits Made in Japan. One, two, Ishii kicks out. Pumping Bomber lariat. Ishii kicks out again. Takagi teases his Last of the Dragon ultimate finisher. Ishii fights out but Takagi hits another elbow smash. Takagi lifts Ishii up and blocks a sudden enzuigiri with his right arm. Ishii hits Takagi’s arm again and lands a German suplex and then charges for another lariat. Takagi hits Ishii’s arm…but Ishii swings around and hits a discus lariat. But Takagi simply bounces off the ropes and charges…into yet another lariat. One, two, Takagi kicks out. Sliding lariat by Ishii. Takagi kicks out again. Twenty minutes have passed. Now for the match to reach breakneck speed.
Ishii goes for a Brainbuster. Takagi escapes and teases LOTD. Ishii escapes and tries his finisher. Takagi blocks and hits what looks like a Jackhammer. Lariat by Takagi. Ishii makes it to his feet almost instantly. Yet another lariat connects. Ishii tanks it and lands a head-butt. Takagi head-butts back. Ishii hits an enzuigiri. Both men stagger but Ishii hits first with another running lariat. He covers but Takagi kicks out at one. Takagi does the same and also gets a one-count. Both charge and collide with lariats in the middle of the ring. Then Takagi hits two more lariats. One, two, and – Ishii kicks out. Last of the Dragon connects. Takagi gets the pin and the win!
Winner after 22:41: Shingo Takagi
For the first time in a very long time, I can honestly say that an Ishii match was disappointing. Usually, I praise Ishii for being this awesome damage sponge whose one main selling point has this magical ability to never get old or stale. Except that it did get stale here. For some reason, Ishii and Takagi didn’t pull off anything special here. Even though this was hyped to the moon as the first-ever Ishii-Takagi singles match, it didn’t meet expectations and certainly doesn’t live up to its alleged legendary status as a greater-than-5-Stars-match.
A big part of this match’s shortcomings came from Takagi’s style. After seeing several high-profile Takagi matches, I can honestly say that he wrestles like an inverted Kenny Omega, i.e. he sprints around like crazy but focuses on arm strikes while Omega focuses on kicks and knees. But other than that limb inversion, Omega and Takagi are more or less the same: they rush at their opponents at blistering speed, never slow down, and rarely sell. Although both of them can be exciting under the right circumstances, Takagi, like Omega, requires the right opponent to allow his style to shine. Ishii was not that opponent. Ishii shines when his opponents mock him and he fights from underneath and then surprises them with his tenacity. Ishii’s match with Okada in the 2016 G1 was a great example of this: Ishii was the underdog and he managed to survive more or less everything Okada threw at him and then beat him. that match was compelling because Ishii was the underdog, even though he was way tougher than Okada.
This match with Takagi was different. Takagi bounced off Ishii and did a lot of random stuff early on that didn’t fit the match. This was a match in which Takagi had to prove himself against Ishii while Ishii was established no matter what. And Ishii’s biggest selling point was that he goes from zero to sixty in less than a minute and doesn’t stop until either he or his opponent is dead. Here, Takagi tried to slow the match down early on and did plenty of stuff that added nothing to the match. It would’ve been way better if Takagi followed Ishii’s lead and stayed at that sprint and gradually slowed down as both wrestlers ran out of gas. Instead, there was a relatively bland middle portion that accomplished nothing, especially since both guys just started running around clotheslining each other anyway.
And as great as the no-sell moments were, both Ishii and Takagi went a bit too far with those ideas. Takagi took several chops to his throat and stopped selling soon after. Both guys smashed each other’s heads into the turnbuckles and those moves had no effect. But most importantly, there were over twenty lariats hit by both wrestlers. The lariat was in this match what superkicks have been to NXT and AEW wrestlers over the past several years: a supposed big move watered down to the point of insignificance. The match got very excessive and silly at one point. I get that both guys were trying very hard to paint themselves as indestructible forces. But they went about it the wrong way. Their no-selling approach lost its effect midway through the match so by the end going back to that same well caused the match to come across more silly and not as tense or exciting as typical Ishii or Takagi matches.
Furthermore, one thing common to most big Ishii matches is that his opponent usually struggles to get him to sell anything, but if they hit him hard enough he’ll sell for them. As such, any wrestler or move that causes the stone-faced Stone Pitbull to betray his trademark stoicism and show pain is seen as a big deal and therefore gets over with the crowd. They tried that spot here but it just didn’t work. Even when Ishii told Takagi to hit him and then finished that long sequence by staggering, it didn’t have the same dramatic effect. These two wrestlers just ran into each other spamming moves and strikes without any sense of logic. Even with the typical crazy back-and-forth wild counter sequence at the end, this match didn’t venture into new territory, nor did it feature anything special. If this match took place in AEW or in WWE, even those fan groups would look at this match and think the match was a bit too over the top.
Final Rating: ****1/4
I know Ishii has a loyal cult following on the internet these days, but even the most devoted Ishii fans don’t need to revisit this match. It still has its strong points, especially with the overall match story of two bulls charging into each other until one of them stops moving. But these two lost the sense of knowing when to stop with a certain idea. They just threw bombs and lariats at each other over and over. That’s usually fun and exciting but not so here. All the big moves these guys landed lost any sense of importance or meaning to the match.
If you really want to see Ishii in his prime, watch his G1 matches with Okada, Ibushi (2018) Goto (2014 and 2018), Nakamura (2014), Omega (2018), Tanahashi (2013) or Shibata (2013). As for Takagi, he’s had a handful of great matches, such as against Okada in 2020 and Ospreay in both 2019 and 2021. Because for some strange reason, these two great wrestlers just didn’t mesh well together here.