We are now over halfway through the year, and with fans returning across the globe, it’s time to check in on the current wrestler of the year race as our host –Voices of Wrestling’s own Thomas Fischbeck– sees it as of today.
The Honorable 15
- Daisuke Harada (NOAH), Best Match: vs. Hajima Ohara, NOAH, 1/30
- Mayu Iwatani (Stardom), Best Match: w/ Saya Iida, Starlight Kid, & Tam Nakano vs. Maika, Himeka, Syuri, & Giulia, Stardom, 6/21
- Hirooki Goto (NJPW), Best Match: vs. Shingo Takagi, NJPW, 2/1
- Yuki Ueno (DDT), Best Match: w/ Naomi Yoshimura vs. Daisuke Sasaki & Soma Takao, DDT, ⅓
- Kaito Kiyomiya (NOAH), Best Match: vs. Go Shiozaki, NOAH, ¼
- Shuji Ishikawa (AJPW), Best Match: w/ Jake Lee & Yuma Aoyagi vs. Kento Miyahara, Suwama, & Zeus, AJPW, 4/6
- Tomohiro Ishii (NJPW), Best Match: vs. Shingo Takagi, NJPW, 2/20
- Tetsuya Endo (DDT), Best Match: vs. Masato Tanaka, DDT, 6/7
- SHO (NJPW), Best Match: vs. Shingo Takagi, NJPW, 7/12
- Takashi Sugiura (NOAH), Best Match: w/ Masato Tanaka vs. Daisuke Sekimoto & Yuji Okabayashi, ZERO1, 3/1
- Kenny Omega (AEW), Best Match: w/ Adam Page vs. Matt Jackson & Nick Jackson, AEW, 2/29
- Yuji Hino (ZERO1), Best Match: vs. Yuji Okabayshi, ZERO1, 1/1
- Hiromu Takahashi (NJPW), Best Match: vs. Will Ospreay, NJPW, ¼
- Will Ospreay (NJPW), Best Match: vs. Hiromu Takahashi, NJPW, ¼
- Kohei Sato (Free), Best Match: w/ Daisuke Sekimoto vs. Yuji Okabayashi & Shingehiro Irie, BJW, 3/3
Now, time for the top 15 through July 31st. Recommendations are matches rated ****+, matches rated ****½+ are bolded.
#15 – Kota Ibushi (NJPW)
- vs. Kazuchika Okada – NJPW, 1/4
- vs. Jay White – NJPW, 1/3
- w/ Hirooki Goto, Kazuchika Okada, & Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, Manabu Nakanishi, & Yuji Nagata – NJPW, 2/22
- vs. Zack Sabre Jr. – NJPW, 6/22
I think Kota Ibushi’s year is an interesting one. The Okada match on January 4th is a little controversial, but I think consensus agrees with me that it was a legit match of the year contender. Since then, though, Ibushi has failed to put up much of note, his highest marks being just four stars flat on three occasions for me. Ibushi has been one of my favorites in the world for years, since his DDT days, and I’m starting to wonder if the Ibushi “schtick” is starting to lose its luster with me. Even the praised Dominion IWGP Tag Title defense against Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi felt a little long in the tooth to me. It seems like the Golden Aces may get another shot at the Suzuki-gun team at the upcoming Summer Struggle event in Jinju, and with the G1 coming up, it seems far-fetched to think one of my all-time faves won’t start to climb back up the list.
#14 – Go Shiozaki (NOAH)
- vs. Kaito Kiyomiya – NOAH, 1/4
- w/ Katsuhiko Nakajima vs. Masaaki Mochizuki & Naomichi Marufuji – NOAH, 1/5
- w/ Kaito Kiyomiya vs. Takashi Sugiura & Kazuyuki Fujia – NOAH, 2/16
- w/ Katsuhiko Nakajima vs. Minoru Tanaka & Naomichi Marufuji – NOAH, 3/22
Go Shiozaki’s wrestler of the year run began January 4th and 5th in Korakuen Hall, as he main evented back to back nights, selling out the building head to head with Wrestle Kingdom and stunning the world, upsetting young ace Kaito Kiyomiya on the fourth, and then dropping the tag titles the next night in what was also a surprise. Both matches were excellent, and the Kaito match remains in my top three of the year to this day. Unfortunately for Go, his work has fallen off since then, as NOAH entered their empty arena doldrums that were nearly universally panned. His tag work with Katsuhiko Nakajima, normally some of the best in the world, didn’t seem to click during NOAH’s Global Tag League, and while both GHC title defenses against Kazuyuki Fujita and Akitoshi Saito were interesting, they both failed to crack the recommended list. With a defense against former NOAH ace Naomichi Marufuji coming up in just a few days, Go will look to climb off of the bubble and back into the more secure spot in which he started the year.
#13 – Keisuke Ishii (DDT Ganbare Pro)
- w/ Shuhei Washida vs. Ken Ohka & Shuichiro Katsumura – DDT Ganbare Pro, 1/19
- w/ Kota Umeda vs. Daiki Shimomura & Masato Kamino – BASARA, 1/22
- vs. Yumehito Imanari – DDT Ganbare Pro, 2/24
- vs. Kouki Iwasaki – DDT Ganbare Pro, 3/21
- vs. Hagane Shinnou – DDT Ganbare Pro, 7/26
The next wrestler on the list, Ganbare’s Keisuke Ishii, has made a name for himself defending the same belt that Kota Ibushi held a decade ago, the Independent World Junior Heavyweight Title. Three Ishii defenses have made the notebook for me this year, as well as a couple tag matches he took part in. However, the Ganbare star lost his title in what was a shocking upset in the final days before this article was published, in a great match against a former Ibushi rival, Hagane Shinnou. Ishii had pretty much ran through everyone on the roster, so him dropping the title and chasing Shinnou, or more likely, Shinnou’s first challenger, DDT’s ASUKA, to return the belt to a wrestler on the Ganbare brand seems like an interesting direction for him and the company to go in for the back half of the year. Sign me up.
#12 – Daisuke Sekimoto (BJW)
- vs. Chris Dickinson – GCW, 2/5
- w/ Kohei Sato vs. Isami Kodaka & Yuko Miyamoto – BJW, 2/11
- w/ Yuji Okabayashi vs. Masato Tanaka & Takashi Sugiura – ZERO1, 3/1
- w/ Kohei Sato vs. Shingehiro Irie & Yuji Okabayashi – BJW, 3/3
- w/ Kosuke Sato vs. Tamura Hayato & Arata – JTO, 7/20
“Daisuke Sekimoto is taking a step back”, they said. I… I just don’t know. Sure, he hasn’t had an incredible run as BJW Strong champ, in fact, his challenge this year was subpar. He hasn’t guest-starred in the Champion Carnival and run rough-shot, and sure, Sekimoto, at 39, may not have the stamina he used to, but he can still do what he does best: chop people really hard, and throw them around, and he’s still, at the very least, one of the best tag wrestlers in the world in 2020. His BJW tag title run with Kohei Sato has been excellent, and I’d also like to give a shout-out to his guest appearances in TAKA Michinoku’s JUST TAP OUT promotion, specifically a match on their most recent show where he took on two green as grass young wrestlers, with a young boy as his partner, and helped lead them to an excellent match, perhaps the best in that promotion’s young history. It wasn’t a match of the year contender, but you could just feel his veteran presence bringing the best out of the other three guys in the match, and it was a great watch. Sekimoto’s next major contest will come August 10th in another BJW tag title defense with Kohei Sato against The Astronauts, Fuminori Abe & Takuya Nomura, which should be an excellent match. He’ll also take on Tamura Hayato in a singles match in JTO on September 2nd at Korakuen Hall.
#11 – Katsuhiko Nakajima (NOAH)
- w/ Go Shiozaki vs. Masaaki Mochizuki & Naomichi Marufuji – NOAH, 1/5
- vs. Shotaro Ashino – W–1, 2/12
- vs. Hideki Suzuki – NOAH, 2/16
- w/ Go Shiozaki vs. Minoru Tanaka & Naomichi Marufuji – NOAH, 3/22
- vs. Takashi Sugiura – NOAH 5/5
No NOAH wrestlers crack the top ten this time around, although Katsuhiko Nakajima is awfully close. The younger half of AXIZ has had a superb year despite being a ways away from the GHC Title picture. He began the year with an excellent GHC Tag Title Match against MochiMaru, followed it up by invading WRESTLE-1 and winning their title, then defending it against Shotaro Ashino in an excellent match. After WRESTLE-1 closed down, he returned to NOAH, had a subpar run in NOAH’s Tag League, but then won the GHC National Title, the promotion’s #2 singles belt, defeating Takashi Sugiura in one of the best empty arena matches of the era. Oh yeah, he also had an awesome 30 minute draw with Hideki Suzuki that remains a low-level MOTY contender. I’m excited to see where Nakajima’s year will go. He defends the National Title August 5th against one of my favorite guys in the world, Kenoh. Afterwards, he’ll likely enter NOAH’s N-1 Tournament, where he should have some excellent matches. He seems to be the clubhouse leader for NOAH WOTY as things stand today, but it may be a stretch to consider him an overall contender.
#10 – Susumu Yokosuka (DG)
- vs. Hikaru Sato – AJPW, 1/3
- vs. Naruki Doi – DG, 3/1
- w/ Dragon Kid, Masato Yoshino, & Shuji Kondo vs. Ben–K, KAI, Strong Machine J, & YAMATO – DG, 7/15
On January 3rd, I was in the building for the AJPW Jr. Heavyweight title decision match between Hikaru Sato and Susumu Yokosuka in Korakuen Hall, and the two made magic. In the first title match since Atsushi Aoki’s tragic death almost six months before, the two had the sold-out crowd in the palm of their hands from bell to bell. The fans, going berserk every time Sato could lock Susumu in an armbar, praying that he could win the title in memory of his fallen friend. That match remains one of my favorites of the year, and Susumu’s brilliant selling and fire throughout took it from a great technical showcase to a fantastic match. After winning the belt, Susumu didn’t have any more classics during his reign, but he elevated guys like Akira Francesco, Hokuto Omori, and Yusuke Okada in high three star matches that were more about getting the young wrestlers over than going out there to have a match of the year contender. Throw in an awesome challenge for the Open the Dream Gate title that is my Dragon Gate MOTY as well as a brilliant performance in the main event of Dragon Gate’s Korakuen return, and Susumu is a bona fide top ten wrestler of the year contender.
#9 – Suwama (AJPW)
- w/ Shuji Ishikawa vs. Ayato Yoshida & Jake Lee – AJPW, 2/6
- vs. Kento Miyahara – AJPW, 3/23
- w/ Kento Miyahara & Zeus vs. Jake Lee, Shuji Ishikawa & Yuma Aoyagi – AJPW, 4/6
- w/ Shuji Ishikawa vs. Kento Miyahara & Yoshitatsu – AJPW, 5/5
- w/ Shuji Ishikawa vs. Isami Kodaka & Yuko Miyamoto – AJPW, 7/18
Suwama’s year took off in late March, one of the last shows in Korakuen Hall before the world ended, in a spectacular Triple Crown Title match against AJPW ace Kento Miyahara that I highly recommend anyone check out. Since that match, however, I’ve actually preferred Suwama’s tag work to his singles work. The Shuji Ishikawa defense was good but too long, and the Ashino defense was just deflating, as I feel AJPW really dropped the ball with the booking. The veteran’s tag work, however, with longtime partner Shuji Ishikawa, has been top-notch. Most notably, I’ve loved his defenses against Yankee Two Kenju and Yoshiken. Being both Triple Crown and World Tag champ, Suwama has been main eventing pretty much every AJPW show for the past few months, and I’d expect that to continue, so he should get plenty of opportunities to add to his resume. The Triple Crown defenses will need to be of a higher grade for him to climb higher than this, though. His next big match will be a tag title defense against Kento Miyahara and Jiro Kuroshio.
#8 – Masato Tanaka (ZERO1)
- vs. Chris Brookes – DDT, 1/3
- w/ Yuji Hino vs. Kohei Sato & Shinjiro Otani – ZERO1, 2/9
- vs. MAO – DDT, 2/23
- w/ Takashi Sugiura vs. Daisuke Sekimoto & Yuji Okabayashi – ZERO1, 3/1
- vs. Yukio Sakaguchi – DDT, 5/9
- vs. Tetsuya Endo – DDT, 6/7
Masato Tanaka’s run through the DDT roster was excellent, putting on very good to great KO-D Championship matches with HARASHIMA, MAO, Konosuke Takeshita, Yukio Sakaguchi, and others before eventually dropping the belt to Tetsuya Endo at DDT’s big Wrestle Peter Pan show in what I thought was maybe the best match of the empty arena era. Throw in the tag team MOTY in an excellent 30 minute draw with Takashi Sugiura against Strong BJ, and you’ve got yourself someone challenging for the top of this list. However, my question remains: where does Tanaka go from here? The ZERO1 title picture feels murky right now, but you’d think Tanaka would be next in line to challenge the winner of Yuji Hino and Chris Vice, or fairly soon afterwards. However, without the consistent opportunities that comes from being a featured wrestler in DDT, I would expect Tanaka to slide down this list in the coming months, although I hope he returns for DDT’s year end D-Oh Grand Prix, the brand’s G1-style tournament.
#7 – Shingo Takagi (NJPW)
- w/ EVIL vs. Hirooki Goto & Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW, ⅙
- vs. Hirooki Goto – NJPW, 2/1
- w/ BUSHI & EVIL vs. Hirooki Goto, Robbie Eagles, & Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW, 2/6
- vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW, 2/20
- vs. SHO – NJPW, 6/22
- vs. SHO – NJPW, 7/12
Shingo Takagi is just… so good. The NEVER Openweight Title picture is probably my favorite in wrestling at the moment, and with great defenses against Goto, Ishii, SHO, and El Desperado already this year, and Minoru Suzuki seemingly being the next challenger, I expect Shingo to continue to skyrocket up these rankings, with the G1 potentially propelling him in a position to challenge for first. Shingo’s power, emotion, and fire when he steps in the ring is unrivaled by anyone in the business, and his taking the NEVER belt to becoming an actual Openweight title is something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time, so I’m glad it is finally happening. Shingo probably won’t be main eventing any big shows this year, but with New Japan’s roster, he is sure to have some excellent matches in the G1 climax, and I’d expect him to improve on his 4-5 record from last year.
#6 – Tetsuya Naito (NJPW)
- vs. Kazuchika Okada – NJPW, 1/5
- vs. KENTA – NJPW, 2/9
Naito remains near the top of my rankings despite only bringing in two matches I have rated at ****+ this year. This is mostly on the back of the Okada match from January 5th at the Tokyo Dome, which remains my match of the year. I’ve never seen anything live that comes close to that, and I think I’m also the high man on the New Beginning defense against KENTA. The EVIL match however… that’s a different story. I watched the match live at 5 AM local time for me and just hated it from start to finish. It was slow and plodding with loads of interference, and I am not excited for the rematch at Summer Struggle, although I doubt it could be worse. Hopefully Naito wins the double belts back, dispatches of EVIL, and goes on to have an amazing G1 that propels him back into top five contention as we close in on the likely Naito vs Okada rematch on January 4th at the Tokyo Dome. For now, however, he has to drop.
#5 – Isami Kodaka (BASARA)
- w/ Daiki Shimomura & Minoru Fujita vs. Akiyori Takizawa, Naoki Tanizaki & Ryota Nakatsu – BASARA, 1/14
- w/ Toshiyuki Sakuda vs. Alex Colon & Danny Havoc – GCW, 2/4
- w/ Yuko Miyamoto vs. Daisuke Sekimoto & Kohei Sato – BJW, 2/11
- w/ Ryuichi Sekine vs. Banana Senga & Tsutomu Oosugi – BASARA, 2/18
- w/ Daiki Shimomura vs. Ryota Nakatsu & Naoki Tanizaki – BASARA, 3/24
- w/ Takuya Nomura vs. Akira Hyodo & Yuji Okabyashi – BJW, 4/26
- w/ Yuko Miyamoto vs. Akira Francesco & Kento Miyahara – AJPW, 4/30
- w/ Yuko Miyamoto vs. Suwama & Shuji Ishikawa – AJPW, 7/18
- vs. Fuminori Abe – BASARA, 7/14
Isami Kodaka, the most underappreciated guy in the world. If you’ve seen Isami Kodaka wrestle this year, it’s probably been through his All Asia tag title run in All Japan with longtime partner Yuko Miyamoto, but there is so much more to Isami Kodaka than that. Kodaka, at 38, probably isn’t going to go out there and put up match of the year contenders anymore, in fact, he’s the only guy in my top 15 to not have a match rated ****½ or higher. However, he is the most high-effort guy in the business, the type of guy that brings out the best in his opponents, and a surefire danger to go in the notebook any time he steps in the ring, whether it is a midcard tag match or the main event. In fact, Isami has made my so-called “notebook” more than anyone else this year- 9 times- that’s unheard of. With his grappling style and kicks that sound like gunshots, he turns meaningless matches into edge-of-your-seat thrillers. Kodaka has torn it up in four different companies this year, with six different tag partners, and capped it off with an excellent 30-minute draw against young Fuminori Abe for BASARA’s top title just before this list made print. Get on the bandwagon before it leaves the station. Kodaka and Miyamoto next defend the All-Asia titles against the Purple Haze team of Zeus and Izanagi.
#4 – Jake Lee (AJPW)
- vs. Kento Miyahara – AJPW, 1/3
- w/ Fuminori Abe vs. Yuki Ishikawa & Hikaru Sato – AJPW, 1/19
- w/ Ayato Yoshida vs. Shuji Ishikawa & Suwama – AJPW, 2/6
- w/ Koji Iwamoto vs. Black Menso~re & Takao Omori – AJPW, 2/11
- w/ Shuji Ishikawa & Yuma Aoyagi vs. Suwama, Kento Miyahara & Zeus – AJPW, 4/6
I’m not going to repeat my Jake Lee rant, you can listen to or read that in a dozen different places, but here is the case for Jake as a legit wrestler of the year contender. His ⅓ match against Kento Miyahara remains a real contender for match of the year, it would probably be around #5 on my list as things stand today. Lee followed that up with an excellent All-Asia tag title run with Koji Iwamoto and a good run in Big Japan’s semi-annual Strong Climb tournament, and with his intensity and power, any time you watch a match of his, even an undercard tag, it’s a pretty good bet to be at least a decent ***½ affair. In fact, Lee has had nine ***½-***¾ matches, tied for the most of anyone on this list. When someone is that incredibly consistently putting on very good matches, and has shown a propensity to peak high (see: the Kento match), that gives me pretty good reason to rank Jake Lee as my #4, with a real chance to rise as he enters the Champion Carnival as a favorite to win that tournament.
#3 – Kazuchika Okada (NJPW)
- vs. Kota Ibushi – NJPW, 1/4
- vs. Tetsuya Naito – NJPW, 1/5
- w/ Hirooki Goto, Kota Ibushi & Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, Manabu Nakanishi & Yuji Nagata – NJPW, 2/22
Kazuchika Okada started the year HOT. The Rainmaker began 2020 with two matches that remain my favorites of the year. He followed that up with a decent match with Taichi and a good performance in Manabu Nakanishi’s retirement match, and then COVID hit, oh well, it happens once every 100 years or so. Since New Japan’s return, though, Okada has looked like a completely different wrestler, and not in a good way. The former ace seemed unmotivated and almost bored throughout his New Japan Cup run, his new finish, the so-called “Money Clip” looks like shit, and he followed up a dreadful main event in the New Japan Cup final with a Yujiro match? Really New Japan?? Okada seemed like a lock to finish in the top three at the start of the year, but the way things are trending, he may not even be a top three New Japan wrestler when all is said and done. We’ll see if Okada’s new “KOPW” title(?) gimmick turns things around for Kazu. The fact that he was so bored that he decided to bring DDT’s Extreme Title belt to New Japan probably means I wasn’t off base about his lack of effort in the New Japan Cup. I’m interested in seeing where this KOPW idea goes, it could be awful, but I also think it could be really cool, the DDT Extreme Title kind of oscillates between those two ends depending on who is holding it. My guess, though, is that this is more of placeholder until Okada runs through the G1 and ends up in a familiar spot, the main event of Wrestle Kingdom.
#2 – Kento Miyahara (AJPW)
- vs. Jake Lee – AJPW, 1/3
- w/ Yoshitatsu vs. Yuma Aoyagi & Danny Jones – AJPW, 1/19
- vs. Suwama – AJPW, 3/23
- w/ Suwama & Zeus vs. Jake Lee, Shuji Ishikawa & Yuma Aoyagi – AJPW, 4/6
- w/ Akira Francesco vs. Isami Kodaka & Yuko Miyamoto – AJPW, 4/30
- w/ Yoshitatsu vs. Suwama & Shuji Ishikawa – AJPW, 5/5
Jake Lee, vs. Suwama, the Champion Carnival coming up, Kento Miyahara might do it again. My 2019 Wrestler of the Year, the most charismatic guy in the world, the best big match wrestler in the world, there is nothing to describe how good this guy is. I think an underrated aspect of his appeal is that through his charisma, his mannerisms, and his intensity once he steps in the ring, he gives you the feel of a Tokyo Dome main event in Korakuen Hall, something I don’t think anyone else in the world can do in a small building. His starpower just brings a gravity to matches that other non-New Japan wrestlers often can’t. Even in the empty arena era, I felt the most connected to his two tag title challenges of any match I watched. Kento just has a way of grabbing and pulling you in, which makes him a contender for the wrestler of the year in any year, however, as of now, there is one guy that beats him out….
#1 – Yuji Okabayashi (BJW)
- vs. Yuji Hino – ZERO1, 1/1
- vs. Daichi Hashimoto – BJW, ½
- w/ Takuya Nomura vs. Daichi Hashimoto & Hideyoshi Kamitani – BJW, 1/26
- w/ Daisuke Sekimoto vs. Masato Tanaka & Takashi Sugiura – ZERO1, 3/1
- w/ Shingehiro Irie vs. Daisuke Sekimoto & Kohei Sato – BJW, 3/3
- w/ Akira Hyodo vs. Isami Kodaka & Takuya Nomura – BJW, 4/26
- vs. Ayato Yoshida – 2AW, 7/5
Yuji Okabayashi clocks in at #1 on this list, the only guy other than Kento to have three matches rated ****½+ by me this year. Yuji has my top two tag matches of the year, brilliant world title matches in not one, not two, but three different promotions, and an excellent track record of putting in effort no matter where he is on the card. Come on, think about it for a second, the fact that this guy drew houses main eventing for three different promotions in a year when cross-promotional events have been sparse is absurd, and speaks to Okab’s star power. His empty arena run as 2AW champion brought many eyes to that promotion, getting the little-known indy a spot on this very own website’s flagship podcast, a feat rarely achieved since that promotion’s name change a year ago. Okab’s plethora of opportunities have given him the ability to build out what is clearly the best resume in the wrestling world this year. However, I am left to wonder where he goes for the back half of the year after dropping the 2AW belt to up and comer Ayato Yoshida. I am, of course, hoping for a return to All Japan’s Champion Carnival, but that feels unlikely. Maybe he is the guy to finally dethrone Daichi Hashimoto for the BJW Strong World Heavyweight crown? I’m not sure, but wherever Okabayashi goes later this year, I’m sure to be following.
Thanks for reading. Tell me, who is your wrestler of the year seven months into the year? You can find me on twitter @rasslinratings. See you next time!