Some wrestling matches are great because they tell a relatable story. Others are great because the drama is off the charts. And others still are great because the wrestlers display superhuman athleticism and clever, daredevil maneuvers.
But there’s a charming simplicity in going back to the basics. Some people just want to see wrestlers drop the niceties and complexities and FIGHT. And that’s exactly what we have here. It’s one of the shortest matches to ever get rated 5-stars, clocking in at just over twelve minutes long. But trust me, these two wrestlers pack such raw intensity and unadulterated brutality into this that it makes that timing just perfect.
Today we revisit the classic first war between Katsuyori Shibata 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.
This is a story between a New Japan lifer and their version of Brock Lesnar. Ishii had spent over a decade mostly in the lower card, acting as the fall guy and rarely doing anything of note. In that sense, he was sort of like WWE’s Christian, minus the world title feud. Then, sometime in 2013, Ishii had a radical transformation. It was if Zeus himself blasted Ishii with a bolt of heavenly lightning, awakening Ishii’s dormant powers. Ishii developed this incredible ability to have amazing, explosive matches centered on his insane ability to withstand punishment. Even by Japanese wrestling standards, Ishii was and is tough as nails.
On the other side, there was Shibata who, like Lesnar, was once pegged for future greatness in New Japan. And like Lesnar, Shibata left NJPW during when they needed him most to pursue a career in MMA. But unlike Lesnar, Shibata’s MMA career was underwhelming and without much success as a draw. So he returned to NJPW in 2012, and spent most of his time teaming with either fellow MMA fighter Kazushi ‘Gracie Hunter’ Sakuraba or childhood friend Hirooki Goto.
Thus, the stage was set. In the annual G1 Climax tournament, Ishii, the career lower-carder with newfound powers to be a boulder would take on a stiff, no-nonsense kickboxer with something to prove to the audience and to his peers.
And so the questions everyone was asking was, who would win?
This match originally took place on August 4th, 2013 and was in the first round of that year’s G1 Climax tournament.
The bell rings and both men EXPLODE into each other. SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! SMASH! Heavy elbows from both guys. Running yakuza kick in the corner from Shibata. He charges back, but Ishii chases him and lands a huge lariat. He whips Shibata into the corner but Shibata powers out with a forearm smash. Both men go down. The crowd applauds loudly. Ishii demands Shibata hit him harder and harder and Shibata is happy to oblige. More elbow smashes. Shibata starts to stagger. But he somehow manages to boot Ishii down. He kicks Ishii some more but Ishii gets to his feet.
Ishii starts chopping Shibata and Shibata goes to one knee, daring Ishii to hit him. But he gets back up and tanks it like it’s nothing. Then Ishii does the same: he goes to one knee and demands to be kicked in the chest. By a professional kickboxer. The man must have brass balls, because he tanks it like it’s nothing. Then Shibata goes down again and takes a chop. Then Ishii repeats himself with tanking a kick. They keep repeating this over and over. This might be the manliest wrestling sequence I’ve ever seen.
Both men are on their feet tanking insanely stiff strikes from each other, neither man so much as flinching. Then, Ishii starts succumbing to the pain after absorbing like 20 stiff kicks from Shibata. Shibata follows him into the corner and starts elbowing Ishii in the face, but Ishii no-sells and hulks up. Ishii tries to stay stone-faced but Shibata just elbows the shit out of him. HARD. But Shibata isn’t done. He charges and lands a huge dunning dropkick to Ishii in the corner, sending Ishii outside.
Ishii returns and Shibata lands a snapmare followed by a punt to the back. Ishii asks ‘please sir, may I have some more?’ and so Shibata punts him in the chest as well. Three straight times. He tries to pick Ishii up but Ishii looks to be out cold. The ref checks on him as the crowd chants Ishii’s name. Ishii struggles hard to get up, selling the pain like he’s been through absolute hell. Shibata pulls him to his feet and lands a running kick to the face. Then, suddenly, Ishii starts hulking up again. Shibata charges but Ishii counters into a belly-to-belly suplex.
Now Ishii returns the favor by kicking Shibata in the chest. But Shibata tanks them like Ishii did, so Ishii lands a spinning wheel kick to the head. Ishii lands a suplex but Shibata kicks out at two. Ishii snapmares Shibata and goes for a PK (Penalty Kick) but Ishii catches his leg. He counters into a LARIATOO! Both men go down as Shibata hits him so hard he hurts his own arm. Shibata applies a Boston Crab but Ishii grabs the ropes. Even without any previous back work this is treated like a big deal by the commentator as he’s going nuts saying that Ishii could tap at any moment. THAT is how you sell a match through commentary.
Shibata drags him back to the middle of the ring and applies an STF. Ishii manages to drag himself to the ropes with all of Shibata’s weight on his back. Shibata follows with a German suplex. But Ishii gets up right away. German suplex by Ishii. LARIATOO. Both men go down. This is absolutely nuts.
Ishii gets up first and motions for Shibata to hit him in the cheek. Shibata obliges and we get another awesome stiff elbow strike exchange. Ishii looks to have it won with one-two combo strikes but Shibata downs him with another hard kick. He pins, but Ishii gets up at one! Wow, what a badass. Shibata goes for another running kick but Ishii drills him with another LARIATO! He pins but now Shibata kicks out at one.
Both men crawl to each other and exchange elbows once again. Shibata looks like he won that exchange, so Ishii head-butts him. Ishii goes for a suplex but Shibata fights out of it and lands his own painful-looking head-butt. Both men crumple to the mat. The crowd’s going nuts as the ref begins his count.
Shibata gets up first and locks in a sleeper. Ishii looks like he’s going to legit pass out. He’s even drooling from the loss of basic body control.
Wait, no, he reaches the ropes. Shibata answers this with a punt to the chest. And Ishii answers with an enzuigiri. But Shibata doesn’t go down and lands more kicks. Ishii lands another lariat! Shibata kicks out at one again! A second lariat! Shibata kicks out at two! Brainbuster by Ishii! One, two, three! That’s it! Ishii wins!
Winner after 12:17: Tomohiro Ishii
(Editor’s Note: It was tough to find a video of this match on Youtube or Dailymotion or some other service to embed it on the page. This link has the match and it’ll open in a new window for you. It’s worth a watch for sure!)
If your thing is seeing two badass dudes beating the shit out of each other in the manliest way possible, this match is going to make your week. There’s no deep inner story, no dense or complex psychology, no playing to the crowd, no typical hero-versus-villain dynamic. Instead, it’s a twelve-minute fight between a literal ass-kicker and a human boulder. And you know what? It’s goddamn awesome.
This match personified modern Strong Style. It was every brutally-intense King’s Road-style fight sequence stripped bare and extended into one, elongated fight. Shibata and Ishii tore into other with simple yet straightforward attacks, which complemented their respective approaches perfectly.
Shibata was still somewhat unproven with the NJPW audience after his failed MMA excursion so he needed to work hard to get the audience behind him. Meanwhile, Ishii was a midcarder for life that had this sudden transformation that enabled him to have great matches with everyone. And these two seemingly-opposite men that came from different realms meshed together perfectly. Shibata’s kickboxing-oriented style and love for stiff strikes was the perfect way to bring it to Ishii the human boulder.
And both men displayed some incredible toughness that really got the crowd going here. When both men opened themselves up to take painful shots and then asked for more, it was an outstanding display of manliness that made both men look like genuine badasses.
Final Rating: *****
Not only is this a fun little war that’s entertaining from bell to bell, but it’s historically important as well. This is the match that really started NJPW’s emphasis on neo-Strong Style that has defines their product to this very day. But this isn’t necessarily the same ‘Strong Style’ of the days of Antonio Inoki and 1980s/1990s New Japan. This is a new Strong Style that’s more reminiscent of the brawl-style of storytelling from 1990s All Japan mixed with a sleeker, more fluid match flow. And it makes for a very exciting viewing experience.
This match itself is extremely simple yet the two wrestlers involved make so much out of so little. There’s plenty of no-nonsense brawling with enough down time to give fans room to breathe without any one segment being too long or too short. Yes, there are moments where the selling (or lack thereof) might look silly and unrealistic, but that’s buoyed by some very legit-looking selling as well. It feels like a war with two men blurring the line between real and scripted so well that the viewer gets hypnotized by the raw brutality that unfolds.
So while it’s not the best match ever, it still deserves its original 5-star rating. It’s a strong style masterpiece and you’ll definitely feel happy and satisfied once you’re done watching it.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.