Note: This essay was intended to be among those published in our NJPW 2018 Year-in-Review eBook but was mistakenly left out of the book’s final publication.
The greatest stories ever told are those of failure and redemption. The stories of men and women who battle against devastating odds, personal demons and superior opponents to achieve the impossible. The pinnacle of the archetype is when the focus is moved away from the outcome, and on to the journey. The value of a life well lived, and the purity of a dedicated heart, is the core of a story that sings a song everyone knows.
We can vicariously swim in the lights and glitter that surround a Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kenny Omega or a Kazuchika Okada, but when we stare into the mirror, we see a very different person gazing back. I’ll never see an aura of otherworldly benevolence like Tanahashi, a sculpted auteur like Omega or a bodacious, charming fashionista like Okada.
When I look in the mirror, I see somebody who looks tired. I see a person who, despite successes and achievements, has never topped a ladder or bested all opponents. Each success was scraped, clawed and wrenched because talent was never enough on its own. For most of us, everything in life seems to take guts and guile.
When a protagonist with these qualities comes along in fiction, they leap from the screen or page and ground themselves in the seat next to the viewer. We feel their pain, their heartache and their loss because these are feelings shared by all, not just the lucky few. Like Rocky, everyone has had a dream that wouldn’t die. Like Deckard, everyone has lived a life they’ve been unable to escape. We’ve had the weight of the world on us like Sarah Connor, rejection and depression-like John McClain and struggled with crushing expectations like Holden Caulfield.
In the star-driven business of professional wrestling, this wonderful, universal story is almost impossible to tell. By nature, and in some ways by design, its appeal transcends these earthly, laborious qualities. For a long time, the unstoppable goliath has clashed with impossible beauty in battles worthy of modern mythology. This leaves little space for the grafter, the failure or the spirited.
But, there’s Tomohiro Ishii.
The sentient scowl is certainly not the biggest wrestler. Nor, in kayfabe and reality, is he the most talented. He wallows in the upper mid-card muck battling for titles he doesn’t really understand and doesn’t react to the adoring screams from those around him. It’s not that he doesn’t care; he doesn’t know how to share that love. His life has been a constant, whirlwind of battles and defeats to get where he is. Just like most people.
The first half of his 2018 stinks of the daily grind. He wins a low-tier title in the most insignificant match at the Tokyo Dome before losing it straight away. A first-round defeat in the New Japan Cup leads to a soul-searching yet short run with the Undisputed British Title.
This is the resume of a man who doesn’t have the luxury of spending months in a warehouse musing over innovations in offense. He can’t utter niceties on mainstream TV with saccharine stars. He can’t frivolously fling money into cars and booze. He must strategize and hustle, battling for every coin, recognition or reward he receives.
The genius and wonder of this storytelling is firmly planted inside the wrestling ring. There are few elaborate promos or character pieces to force a narrative into our consciousness. There are just four corners, three ropes and an overload of fighting spirit.
On the fourth of August, Ishii wrestled Kenny Omega, the esoteric IWGP champion, in Osaka. The grueling G1 Climax is barely halfway through, but already Ishii has battled his way to a middling record. Sometimes he wins, but he loses far too often.
The juxtaposition between the two wrestlers is glaring. Ishii’s stoic preparation lingers in the background while Omega poses and flounders around the ring. Omega behaves like a man with margin and latitude. A perfect record in the tournament and IWGP gold tight around his waist gives him that disgusting, privileged confidence that our hero cannot afford.
Ishii’s battle is exemplified in this match. While the more successful wrestlers battle for glory and fame, Ishii’s story is nobler. He fights for the respect and honor that combat brings. His goal is more important than any frivolous moment standing under a rain of confetti or the handshake of a faceless suit. He battles for a sense of belonging, a reason to hold his head up high and a solid paycheck to take home.
Omega, the ethereal wrestling savant, cannot hope to relate to that story. His raw, magical talent that has seen him blaze to the top of the wrestling world cannot compute the fear of failure that Ishii is burdened with. To a man like Omega, the average G1 record and the indistinct championship record of Ishii is a failure in itself.
He disrespects the man who he sneers at, bouncing his palms on Ishii’s head, confirming that, yet again, Ishii is battling for validation.
Then, the magic of Ishii drags the crowd behind him in a vortex of wonderful violence. The chops that stun Ishii’s chest are shrugged off like another roadblock in a difficult life. He smiles as Kenny smashes his calf into his back, laughing at the insignificance of yet another blow. Even a jarring, calculated V-Trigger that sends a sickening echo into the ether is withstood with determination and defiance.
As the crescendo of violence reaches its peak, so does Tomohiro Ishii, displaying the true beauty and romanticism of his character. Nobody ever really controls Tomohiro Ishii. Even flat on his back, staring at the lights, he’s waiting. At any moment he can spring back to life in a flurry of brutality and end the match in a heartbeat. He’s a living embodiment of that crushed, oppressed anti-hero and he oozes that one distinct quality that binds them all together. He is flawed, burdened and, in a wonderful way, fragile. Like all of us, he can be beaten. Like the best of us, he never quits.
A rhetorical “how is he still fighting?” siphons through the minds of all who watch him squirm and scrape free from Kenny’s attempts to finish him once and for all. That beautiful rumble echoes through the arena; the unspeakable emotion that comes with a man battling against all the odds to claim that once in a lifetime victory against someone who is twice the fighter but half the man.
The conflict is real to everyone, as Ishii’s superb selling simultaneously evokes an empathic need for him to stay down and save his body yet pushing him to get the victory his soul needs. He clenches his fists and screams and every single person watching this match screams with him.
John McClain won his family back, Sarah Connor saved the world and Tomohiro Ishii beat the IWGP champion. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the main event or that it wasn’t for the title. Ishii fought with the determination of a man who has lived a life of trials and defeats and, in the process, found the validation that we all crave.
In a world that rewards the exceptional and the flamboyant, Ishii is a bastion of true values. He fights, battles and crawls.
Tomohiro Ishii can be pinned, but never beaten.