The Rise of Tomohiro Ishii

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Over the past two years, Tomohiro Ishii of New Japan Pro Wrestling has become one of the cool wrestlers to root for. As recently as late 2012, he was seen as a very talented and under-rated wrestler who flew under the radar. He started to gain some traction going into 2013 and then had some of the best matches in that year’s G-1 Climax tournament. In 2014, he has come to be seen by many as one of the best wrestlers in the world. All of this from a man who is thirty-eight years old and has been wrestling for almost eighteen years. While he may be new to most of us, he is not new to pro wrestling. So what has he been up to prior to the past couple of years?

Early Career

Ishii was originally trained by all-time great Genichiro Tenryu as part of the WAR dojo affiliated with Tenryu’s WAR promotion. Ishii made his in-ring debut at the November 2, 1996 WAR show when he lost to Choden Senshi Battle Ranger, which would seem to be the puroresu equivalent of Sgt. Slaughter’s old moniker Super Destroyer Mark II.

On October 12, 1997, Ishii won his first career title when he and partner Yuji Yasuraoka won the WAR International Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Titles from Masashi Aoyogi and Gokuaku Umibouzu. It was during this period of time that Genichiro Tenryu was starting to wrestle more in NJPW and there were less and less WAR shows.

In 1998, Ishii started wrestling for a small promotion called Capture International Basement Wrestling which ran shows in front of 100-150 fans. The promotion contained mostly lesser-known wrestlers and appears to have been the home promotion of Koki Kitahara who had exposure in NJPW, AJPW, SWS, WAR and CMLL to that point. Ishii continued to wrestle for the promotion through 2002 and eventually was working in main events.

Ishii won his second career championship on March 1, 1999 when he and Yuji Yasuraoka won WAR’s International Jr. Heavyweight Tag Titles from Shinjiro Ohtani and Tatsuhito Takaiwa. Yasuraoka retired soon after and the titles were vacated on June 22 of that year. Ishii lost to Masao Orihara on WAR’s 7th Anniversary Show on June 20, 1999. Ishii lost to Shigeo Okumura at WAR’s September 7 show.

Ishii continued with Capture International in 2000 but also started with the Dramatic Dream Team (DDT) promotion. In Capture, he participated in the promotion’s three-round boxing glove matches and also had tag team main events in 2/3 falls matches opposing Kitahara and other opponents. On September 24 Ishii defeated Yuji Sugiwara on an Onita Pro show.

Journeyman Years

In 2001 Ishii branched out into a number of other promotions. On February 4 he wrestled in a ten-minute match for IWA Japan in which one of his partners was Terry Gordy (five months prior to his death) and one of his opponents was Doug Gilbert. He also toured with DDT throughout the rest of February.

In March 2001, Ishii started with Ultimo Dragon’s Toryumon promotion for the El Numero Uno tour. Ishii teamed with Magnum Tokyo, Genki Horiguchi and other partners during this tour and also had singles matches with Stalker Ichikawa. Ishii was also able to wrestle against opponents such as CIMA, SUWA and Masaaki Mochizuki so this would appear to be one of the biggest tours to that point in his career other than his work with WAR.

Ishii continued with DDT throughout the spring and also continued with Toryumon, including a win over Genki Horiguchi and a loss to Masaaki Mochizuki. Ishii toured with Michinoku Pro in October 2001. On October 6 he teamed with Dick Togo and defeated The Great Sasuke and Hideki Nishida. On October 7 Ishii teamed with Togo and Gedo and defeated Sasuke, Nishida and Masao Orihara. He worked in DDT for most of the rest of 2001, having matches against Sanshiro Takagi and Takaashi Sasaki and also teaming with Sansgiro Takagi.

In 2002, Ishii continued with M-Pro, teaming at times with Gedo and Ikuto Hidaka. He also teamed with Hidaka in Onito Pro to defeat Kazua Yuasa and Gran Hamada. On February 17 Ishii participated in a tournament for M-Pro’s Independent Junior Heavyweight Title, losing to Yuasa in the first round. On March 5 Ishii lost a single matches to Yuki Ishikawa in M-Pro. He then teamed with Dick Togo in a tournament for the IWA Japan World Pro Tag Titles, losing to Ryo Miyake and Yukihide Ueno in the first round.

On June 2, 2002 Ishii participated in an eight-man barbed wire street fight, with one of his partners being Mr. Pogo and opponents including Atsushi Onita and Ricky Fuji. On June 13 Ishii teamed with Koki Kitahara in Capture International and won the 2/3 falls main event. Ishii spent the fall with WEW, teaming with Ikuto Hidaka to lose to Gentaro and Takashi Sasaki in a match for the WEW Tag Titles on September 14. Ishii also teamed with TNR #1 in a losing challenge to Gentaro and Sasaki on November 4.

Ishii spent 2003 wrestling for Riki Choshu’s new World Japan Pro Wrestling promotion. On March 16 he teamed with Shiro Koshinaka and lost to Atsushi Onita and Ricky Fuji in a no-ropes barbed wire and barbed wire board death match. He and Koshinaka lost to Onita and Ichiro Yaguchi in another barbed wire match. Ishii teamed with Kensuke Sasaki and lost to Takao Omori and Dick Togo on June 8. He had singles matches with Tamaoki Honma, Yoji Anjo, Koshinaka, Togo and Sasaki through the year. He teamed with Riki Choshu at times and also faced him in tag matches. Ishii finished out the year by wrestling in Zero-1 in December 2003.

Ishii continued with World Japan in 2004, including defeating Katsuhiko Nakajima in his first pro wrestling match on January 5. On January 11 Ishii and Choshu defeated Shinya Hashimoto and Naohiro Hoshiwaka. Ishii wrestled in a six-man match on Osaka Pro’s Super J Cup show on February 21. Ishii defeated Gran Hamada on WJ’s one-year anniversary show. He teamed regularly with Choshu, including a match on the second Hustle show. They faced teams that included a WJ match against Original Tiger Mask and Yuki Ishikawa and Zero-1 matches Masato Tanaka and Yoshihito Sasaki and Shinjiro Ohtani and Ikuto Hidaka.

On June 4 Ishii teamed with Tatsuhito Takaiwa in Zero-1 to defeat Low-Ki and Leonardo Spanky (Brian Kendrick) for the NWA International Lightweight Tag Team Titles. They successfully defended the titles against Jose and Joel Maximo on June 25. On the first Riki Pro show Ishii teamed with Kendo Ka Shin and lost to Bad Boy Hido and Kintaro Kanemura in a match for the WMG Tag Team Titles. He and Takaiwa lost the NWA titles to Kaz Hayashi and Leonardo Spanky on September 19. Throughout the year Ishii teamed with Choshu and others in a series of cage death matches.

New Beginnings in New Japan

Ishii made his debut for New Japan on December 11, 2004 when he and Choshu lost to Manabu Nakanishi and Jushin Liger in Liger’s return match. The next day Ishii and Choshu defeated Takashi Iizuka and Togi Makabe. Ishii spent 2005 wrestling in a number of promotions including Riki Pro, Apache Pro, Big Japan, Hustle, Zero-1, Pro Wrestling NOAH, Futen, Big Mouth Loud and New Japan. He teamed with Choshu throughout the year including in matches against Osamu Nishimura and Togi Makabe, Daisuke Sekimoto and Shiro Koshinaka, Tatsumi Fujinami and Nishimura and Wataru Sakata and Mark Coleman. Ishii and Kintaro Kanemura lost to Bad Boy Hido and Tetsuhiro Kuroda in a Riki Pro match for the WMG tag titles on April 16.

On January 4, 2006 Ishii wrestled on his first NJPW Tokyo Dome Show when he and Tatsuhito Takaiwa lost to Tiger Mask 4 and Minoru during the era in which Brock Lesnar was IWGP Champion. The next day Ishii and Takaiwa defeated El Samurai and Jushin Liger on a Riki Pro card. Ishii started working regularly in NJPW from that time on, working in tag matches with Choshu and others and also losing in singles matches to wrestlers such as Hiroshi Tanahashi and Takashi Iizuka. Ishii started teaming regularly with Toru Yano in June 2006 and had a series of matches with Makabe and Koshinaka. They also defeated Jado and Gedo at Sumo Hall on October 9.

Hiroyoshi Tenzan formed the Great Bash Heel (GBH) faction in NJPW in 2006. The group initially consisted of Tenzan, Togi Makabe and Shiro Koshinaka and Ishii and Yano later joined the group. Ishii and Yano teamed for the rest of the year and participated in the 2006 G1 Tag League. Ishii then finished out the year with a number of NJPW vs GBH matches.

Ishii wrestled on the January 4, 2007 Tokyo Dome Show when he teamed with Yano and Makabe to defeat Travis Tomko, D-Lo Brown and Buchanan. Ishii continued with the GBH faction in a number of tag and six-man matches and at times they teamed against Choshu. On March 4 Ishii lost to Yuji Nagata in the first round of the New Japan Cup. Ishii also teamed with new GBH member Tomaoki Honma that year, including on Apache Pro shows. Ishii lost to Choshu in a singles match on a Lock Up show on July 29. Ishii and Honma lost to the unusual team of Akebono and Jushin Liger on September 17.

On November 24, 2007 Ishii defeated Daisuke Sekimoto in a number one contender match for the WEW Heavyweight Title on a Lock Up show. Ishii continued with NJPW into 2008, including teaming with Tenzan, Jado and Gedo in Tenzan’s return match on February 17. On February 24 Ishii lost to WEW Champion Mammoth Sasaki in a title match. Ishii lost to Tenzan in the first round of that year’s New Japan Cup on March 9. On July 12 Ishii defeated Mammoth Sasaki to win the WEW Heavyweight Title.

On September 21 in Kobe, Ishii and Takashi Iizuka lost to Tenzan and Satoshi Kojima in a GBH vs Tenkoji match. Ishii teamed with Iizuka in the G1 Tag League that year, scoring their only tournament win over Tenzan and Kojima. Ishii successfully defended the WEW title against Tetsuhiro Kuroda on November 3 in the main event of a Lock Up show at Korakuen Hall.

In 2009, Ishii wrestled for NJPW, Big Japan and Real Japan Pro Wrestling. On the January 4 Tokyo Dome Show he teamed with Giant Bernard, Takashi Iizuka and Karl Anderson and lost to Choshu, Masahiro Chono, Kurt Angle and Kevin Nash. On the January 10 Lock Up show Ishii defeated Kintaro Kanemura in a match for the WEW Title. He wrestled in Real Japan Pro Wrestling in March. On March 8 he faced Wataru Inoue in the first round of the New Japan Cup and they went to a double countout. Ishii then lost to Inoue in a falls count anywhere match on the May 6 NJPW show. Ishii spent most of the rest of the year in multi-man matches as well as having singles matches against Inoue, Yuji Nagata and Tomoaki Honma. He teamed with Masato Tanaka in that year’s G1 Tag League. During 2009, Ishii also came to be associated with Shinsuke Nakamura’s new CHAOS faction.

Moving Slowly Up The Card

On the January 4, 2010 Tokyo Dome Show, Ishii teamed with Takashi Iizuka, Toru Yano and Abdullah The Butcher and lost to Terry Funk, Riki Choshu, Manabu Nakanishi and Masahiro Chono. Ishii’s stock seemed to rise this year with some singles wins as well as having singles matches against Yuji Nagata and Hiroshi Tanahashi. He did lose to Togi Makabe in the first round of the New Japan Cup. He teamed with Shinsuke Nakamura and Masato Tanaka in the J Sports Crown Six-Man Openweight Tournament, going to the semi-finals. On the September 29 Tenryu Project show, Ishii teamed with Suwama and Arashi to win the WAR Six-Man Tag Titles from Yoshihiro Takayama, Tatsutoshi Goto and Daisuke Sekimoto. Ishii and Tanaka again teamed in that year’s G1 Tag League and Ishii and had an impressive three wins, which was topped by only two teams in that year’s tournament.

On the January 4, 2011 Tokyo Dome show Ishii teamed with Yujiro Takahashi, Jado and Gedo in a loss to Wataru Inoue, Tiger Mask 4, Tomoaki Honma and Tama Tonga. Ishii teamed with Takao Omori on the January 10 Legend Pro show and defeated Tamon Honda and Deisuke Sekimoto. On February 26, Ishii lost the WEW Title to Kintaro Kanemura on an Apache Pro show, ending Ishii’s reign at just over two-and-a-half years. He teamed with Takashi Iizuka and Toru Yano in June’s J Sports Crown six-man tag tournament and went to the semi-finals. On the August 21 Tenryu Project show he teamed with Genichiro Tenryu and Arashi and successfully defended the WAR six-man titles. By 2011, Ishii was positioned to the point that he was getting regular wins over young lions such as Hiromu Takahashi, Takaaki Watanabe and Kyosuke Mikami. He also teamed with Don Fujii of Dragon Gate in that year’s G1 Tag League.

Ishii teamed with Masato Tanaka on the January 8, 2012 Legend Pro show and defeated Alexander Otsuka and Tomoaki Honma. He continued in multi-man matches and in getting wins over young lions. He did have an Intercontinental Title Shot against Hirooki Goto on May 6. On August 26 he and Tatsuhito Takaiwa teamed in Zero-1 to defeat Shinjiro Ohtani and Daiichi Hashimoto. In November there was a tournament for the newly formed Never Openweight Title. Ishii went to the semi-finals following wins over Daisuke Sasaki and YOSHI-HASHI. Ishii lost to eventual tournament winner Masato Tanaka in the semi-finals. Ishii was able to gain a higher profile in that year’s G1 Tag League as the partner of Shinsuke Nakamura and they did have three wins in the tournament.

Turning Heads

Going into 2013 there was talk of Ishii as an underrated and under-utilized performer. It turned out to be a year in which his star began to rise. He was on that year’s January 4 Tokyo Dome show, teaming with Yoshi-Hashi and Jado in a loss to Jushin Liger, Tiger Mask 4 and Captain New Japan. On February 3, Never Champion Masato Tanaka defeated him in a title match that main evented a Korakuen Hall Show. Ishii defeated Satoshi Kojima in the first round of that year’s New Japan Cup before losing to Hirooki Goto in the quarter-finals. He teamed with Shinsuke Nakamura in a losing challenge to IWGP Tag Champs Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr. on April 5. On the June 22 Dominion Show, Ishii and Nakamura lost to Shelton Benjamin and Minoru Suzuki.

August 2013 provided the stage for star-making performances by Ishii in that year’s G1 Climax Tournament. He defeated NJPW top star Hiroshi Tanahashi on day two of the tournament in a match featuring great action and putting over of Ishii. On day four he faced and defeated Katsuyori Shibata in what many considered the match of the year (myself included). He also turned in strong matches against Satoshi Kojima and Togi Makabe. He didn’t get to participate in the finals of the tournament but was seen by many as the star of the tour. He was able to tour Mexico with CMLL in September and October. Ishii had a rematch with Shibata on the October 14 King of Pro Wrestling show and he again teamed with Nakamura in the G1 Tag League. He did also have a singles loss against Tanahashi on November 9.

Many were disappointed that his G1 Climax performances didn’t lead to a stronger run in 2013 for Ishii, but in 2014 he was given a unique opportunity to showcase his great matches. Tetsuyo Naito had won the G1 Climax and was primed to win the IWGP title at the Tokyo Dome on January 4, a show on which Ishii was notably not included. In the run-up to the Dome Show, Naito won the Never Title from Masato Tanaka in September 2013 and it was largely expected that the title would be merged with the IWGP Title as it had little visibility. Naito ended up losing to IWGP Champion Kazuchika Okada at the Tokyo Dome and was then programmed into a feud with Ishii. They brawled with each other in a number of multi-man matches leading up to Ishii winning the Never title February 11 in a widely acclaimed match.

From there, Ishii and Naito had two more standout matches, with Ishii losing to Naito in the first round of the New Japan Cup on March 15 and Ishii later successfully defending the Never title against Naito on April 6 in another hard-hitting match. On April 12 NJPW held a show in Taiwan and Ishii defeated Kushida in a well-received Never Title match. He defeated Tomoaki Honma in a title match on May 3 in a match that garnered quiet appreciation. On May 25 Ishii defeated Kota Ibushi in a title match that many considered Ishii’s best match so far in a great year. He lost the title to Yujiro Takahashi on the June 29 show, ending one of the best title reigns in recent years for match quality at four-and-a-half months.

What Lies Ahead

Ishii’s opportunity to elevate a lesser title could be a springboard to great things for him. He is set to participate in the 2014 G1 Climax Tournament starting on July 21 with a match against Bad Luck Fale. He has matches scheduled against Satoshi Kojima, Shelton Benjamin, Tomoaki Honma, Doc Gallows, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, Katsuyori Shibata and Yuji Nagata. This presents him with some fresh opponents who could be a challenge to have great matches with (see Fale) as well as opponents with whom Ishii has already had some classic matches. The semi-finals and finals are taking place on August 10, with NJPW returning to a format in which four men are set up on the last day to possibly win the tournament.

There are hopes that he could be the tournament winner and go on to face AJ Styles for the IWGP Title. This would be great use of a man who garnered little attention for a number of years and is now a fresh veteran who could have a great impact on the promotion. His style seems to have been shaped by various influences through the years, including the heavyweight slug-fest style of WAR as well as the lucharesu style of Toryumon. While he does appear to have spent a number of years being under-utilized in NJPW, perhaps the timing is just right for him to go to the next level and be the fourth star that they need alongside Tanahashi, Okada and Nakamura. He would also provide an excellent bridge to elevate whoever that might be with his great matches, such as Tetsuyo Naito or Katsuyori Shibata. Regardless, those wanting to see some great wrestling should check out the tournament to see if this is the start of a great run for Ishii or just another chance for him to show how great he is no matter what his position is in long-term planning.

Author: Dave Musgrave