As of this writing, we’re in the middle of the G1 Climax, a tournament with literally dozens of big matches. On this year’s schedule, there was one match that stuck out for this author. On July 28 Tomohiro Ishii takes on Kota Ibushi in what is sure to be one of the best matches of the tournament. While the history between these two might not be as storied as the history between Ibushi and someone like Kenny Omega, there surely is history between these two. Bloody history.

The first time these men met in a singles match, fans were treated to a brutal classic that seems to have been forgotten over the past couple of years. On May 25th, 2014, Ishii defended his NEVER Openweight Championship at New Japan’s Back to Yokohama Arena against Ibushi. Not only is this an incredible match, it’s one of the matches that made me fall in love with New Japan. (You can find the match on NJPW World here)

Coming into this match, Kota Ibushi was the Junior Heavyweight Champion, making this a clash of divisions that we don’t see very often in 2018. Ishii had won the NEVER Championship from Tetsuya Naito earlier in the year and this was the beginning of the hard hitting NEVER style that we know now. These two aren’t strangers and actually met for the very first time in 2011. That time Ibushi and Ishii were on opposite sides of a tag match on a DDT show. On that occasion, Dick Togo, Gedo, and Ishii beat Ibushi, Antonio Honda, and Daisuke Sasaki. Ibushi and Ishii would meet four other times in tag matches leading up to this NEVER title match, but none of them would prepare us for what was to come.

The bell rings and both men look confident. They should be, they’re both coming into this with gold on their shoulders. They lock up and we quickly see what kind of match this is going to be. Ishii doesn’t give a clean break, trying to take Ibushi’s head off with a strike. Ibushi ducks and counters with a kick, which is also dodged. The first strike of the match comes from Ibushi after he’s bowled over by a shoulder block. The Golden Star responds with a kick to the chest. This is normally a hit that crumples opponents, but Ishii takes the hit as though it was nothing and fires back with three blistering chops. Ibushi tries with two more kicks, but as he goes nose to nose with Ishii, we see that those strikes were ineffective as well.

The two men exchange stiff forearms back and forth at a crazy pace. This shows is the first hint of weakness for Ishii as he eventually falls to the mat. Ibushi stomps away at Ishii on his own volition and then at the urging of his opponent. One of the stomps knocks Ishii back, allowing Kota to go for the first pin of the match. Unsurprisingly, Ishii kicks out at one. Ibushi brings the Stone Pitbull to his feet and takes a backdrop driver for his efforts. Ishii returns Ibushi’s stomps from earlier before bringing Kota to his feet and rocking him with a headbutt. Ibushi is placed in the corner and faces the Violence Party of chops and forearm strikes until he slumps down to the canvas. Ishii most definitely has brought the stiff to this match.

Ishii taunts Ibushi by slapping him on the top of his head twice. The rage builds in Ibushi and he fires off a closed fist punch to Ishii’s stomach, a move which has no effect other than to further anger the NEVER Champion. Ibushi continues to wrestle Ishii’s match, hitting several hard elbow smashes, but the only thing he receives for his efforts is a series of brutal chops to the throat. Each chop was targeted right at Kota’s windpipe. Ibushi struggles not only to stand, but to breathe as well. Ishii makes his first mistake of the match, whipping Ibushi into the opposite corner, allowing him to boot Ishii in the face. After a brief forearm exchange, Ishii bounces off the ropes to gain some momentum, but gets crushed with a dropkick to the face.

Ishii rolls to the outside and Ibushi sees this as the perfect time to hit the Golden Star moonsault to the outside. The only problem is that Ishii recovered extraordinarily fast, bounding into the ring to smash Ibushi in the head with a forearm. Ishii doesn’t let up either, lifting up Ibushi and slamming him into the mat with a brainbuster from the second rope. Ishii crawls over for a pin, but the resilient Golden Star kicks out at two. Not soon after, Ibushi kicks out of a pin attempt again after Ishii folds the man in half with a powerbomb. Ishii looks to continue his bulldozer offense with a lariat, but Ibushi ducks it and nails a Pele kick. Ibushi sends Ishii rolling out of the ring with a head scissors and nails a beautiful Golden Triangle  to the outside, turning the tide of the match in his favor.

Getting back into the ring, Ibushi continues to wrestle his style of a match. Ishii is hurting and Ibushi doesn’t let up, using kicks, a standing Shooting Star Press, and a springboard moonsault, but the Stone Pitbull stays alive kicking out at two. Ibushi tries for a standing moonsault and lands on Ishii’s knees for his effort. Kota’s momentum is ground to a halt. Before he knows what happened, Ibushi’s neck is under attack as Ishii plants him with a devastating German suplex and follows that up with a move from Ibushi’s own arsenal; the Last Ride Powerbomb. This is all done to set up for Ishii’s next planned attack. Ishii sits Kota on the top turnbuckle and goes for a top rope brainbuster. The plan doesn’t exactly work as Kota uses strikes to daze his opponent and slip out of his grasp.

With Ishii seated on the top turnbuckle, much like Ibushi was just a few second ago, the Golden Star smashes him with an impressive Pele kick. Following this is a scary moment where Ibushi attempts a Frankensteiner and Ishii attempts to counter with a powerbomb, causing them to both drop themselves on their heads in a move that looked like a Styles Clash that wasn’t fun for anybody. Ishii grabs his shoulder in pain on the mat while Ibushi lays there, barely conscious. Both men climb back to their feet and Ibushi recovers first, nailing Ishii with a forearm and a German suplex with a bridge for a two count. Ibushi stands Ishii back up and the Stone Pitbull attempts to surprise Ibushi with a strike. Kota sees this coming and crushes Ishii with a forearm, dropping the NEVER Champion. Ibushi signals for a lariat, but Ishii counters with a headbutt and repeated elbow strikes. Ibushi fires back with a desperation headbutt of his own, hitting Ishii above his eye and his left collarbone. Ishii immediately holds his eye in agony, his stone facade cracked, allowing blood to slowly trickle down his face. Ibushi scores with the lariat he was looking for a moment ago. A smile comes across his face as he see that this golem he shares the ring with is human too. If he can bleed, he can be beaten.

Ishii is hurt and it only gets worse for him as he’s flung into the air and back down to the ground with a Last Ride. Somehow Ishii manages to kick out at two. Ibushi leaps to the top rope for a Phoenix Splash and once again Ishii shocks us all by having enough in him to roll out of the way at the last second. Adrenaline bursts through Ishii’s body as he quickly gets to his feet and nails a seated Ibushi with the sliding lariat. Ishii immediately hooks Kota’s leg and transitions to a pin, which the Junior Heavyweight Champion is just barely able to kick out of. Both men lay exhausted on the mat as the doctor runs over to check Ishii’s cut. Ibushi, with the blood of his opponent smeared across his chest, struggles to stand up, but the fire in his eyes tells a completely different story. When both men get back to their feet they exchange brutal slaps back and forth. Each man goads the other into hitting harder until that switch finally flips in Kota Ibushi’s mind and he begins to pepper Ishii with stiff palm strikes. One strike to the top of Ishii’s head seems to wake him up. Ishii spits out some blood, locks eyes with Ibushi, and starts to fire back with palm strikes of his own. They swing wildly at each other until Ishii catches Ibushi with a hit that make him drop to the mat.

Ishii stands Ibushi back up, looking to take his head off with a lariat, but gets a surprise kick to the head. Ibushi follows that up with a roundhouse to the face that looks to knock out Ishii. Whether Ishii was actually out or not, he is clearly awake when he kicks out of Ibushi’s pin at one! Both men will themselves up and Ibushi looks for a big lariat, but the Stone Pitbull has a second wind and turns Ibushi inside out with a lariat of his own. Ishii falls onto his opponent for a pin, which is kicked out of at one. Ibushi shoots back up to his feet and runs at Ishii, determined to hit that lariat this time, but is once again knocked out of his boots by the exact move he wanted to hit. These two men are completely spent. The referee begins a count which reaches an eight before the champions are able to fight to a vertical base. They exchange forearm strikes, but these don’t have the power behind them like they used to have. Finally, one strike seems to rock Ishii and Ibushi fires off forearm after forearm to capitalize. Ishii throws his head like a wrecking ball into Ibushi’s chest, knocking him down to the mat. Ishii tries for the brainbuster, but Ibushi slips out and lariats Ishii in the back of the neck. Ishii responds with a Pele kick of his own, which staggers Kota. Ibushi goes back to the well for a lariat, but Ishii catches him and tosses him with a dragon suplex. The Golden Star rolls with the momentum and lands on his feet. Before Ishii even knows what happened, he gets hit with a snap dragon for a two count. The crowd is electric and can’t believe that Ishii kicked out of that suplex. Ibushi can’t believe it either. He’s made Ishii bleed, what more does he have to do?

Ibushi stands the Stone Pitbull up and seats him on the top turnbuckle, looking for a brainbuster. Ishii fights his way out of it, knocking Ibushi to the frame of the ring. Ibushi attempts his springboard standing Frankensteiner, but Ishii sees it coming and lariats Ibushi out of midair, knocking them both to the canvas below. Once their both standing, Ishii doesn’t let up, lariating Ibushi inside out again. He folds Kota in half for a pin, but somehow Ibushi finds it in himself to kick out again. The Junior Champion shoots up to his knees and with glazed over eyes, he falls right back down again. Ishii picks up Ibushi and lifts him into the air for a brainbuster. He lets Kota hang in the air for a while before he slams him into the ground. Ishii crawls over to Ibushi, using the very last of his strength to hook both legs for a pin. The referee’s hand slaps the mat three times and the match comes to a close. The ring floods with the Young Lions and the doctor, coming to check on both men. Neither man comes out of this looking like a winner, but Ishii is the one with the belt at the end of it. As the ring announcer says Ishii’s name and he gets his arm raised by the referee, Ishii can’t take his eyes off Ibushi, who stares back defiantly, holding up a finger as to say that this is only the first time they’ll meet.

And he was absolutely right.

It took over three years, but Ishii and Ibushi met in a singles match for the second time in the 2017 G1. This time Ibushi evened up their series at one win apiece. So this brings us to July 28 and the deciding match. This match will show us who is the better man and if it’s anything like their first meeting, it will be a brutal affair. This is about more than the G1. Ibushi broke through the stone skin of Ishii, a feat that not many men are capable of. This isn’t something that Ishii will ever forget or forgive and on July 28, we’ll see if he can return the favor.