Going into 2015, I didn’t know too much about New Japan Pro Wrestling. I had vaguely heard about everything going on with AJ Styles, but the promotion really wasn’t on my radar until podcasts and media started reporting that the King of Sports would begin to have weekly programming on AXS. This came at a time when I was seeking out alternatives to the status quo of WWE and IMPACT, so when Jason Solomon raved about Wrestle Kingdom 9 on Solomonster Sounds Off Episode 363, I immediately set my DVR to record New Japan’s American television debut on January 16, 2015.

However, I have to admit that upon my first viewing, I didn’t really get it. The first episode saw Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi clash at Wrestle Kingdom 7 and I found the match to be a bit of a letdown. The style wasn’t what I expected, and it took me quite some time to adjust. So from there, my New Japan on AXS viewing was pretty inconsistent, until I randomly decided to put on KUSHIDA and Kyle O’Reilly’s incredible Best of the Super Junior finals match. With a match that finally resonated with me at a high level, I went back to watch all the AXS shows that were still on my DVR.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the man that is Tomohiro Ishii. At first, I found Ishii pretty unassuming. His matches where he threw forearms back and forth with Togi Makabe were ones that really didn’t grab my attention in the same way the Juniors or Hiroshi Tanahashi eventually did.

In the Summer of 2017, the time came for NJPW’s G1 Special in Long Beach. This was the first show that was airing live on AXS, rather than being highlights from previous shows, so needless to say, I was pretty excited. I was also a fan of Kenny Omega’s work as a junior, so his push as a heavyweight really sparked my interest. The central focus of these two shows was the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship tournament, which I was pretty confident in predicting. “Obviously, Omega will be winning the G1 Climax to finish the story at Wrestle Kingdom, so he’ll probably lose to Michael Elgin in the first round. They seem to love putting belts on this Naito guy, so he’ll probably win it to my chagrin.” Surprise, surprise, my predictions were completely wrong and my perception of what wrestling could be changed forever.

Going into the first round, neither Ishii nor Naito were among my favorites, so I was really shocked when not only Naito lost, but I also loved the match! I also loved many other matches on this show, so I officially decided to bite the bullet and subscribe to NJPW World for night 2. On that fateful Saturday, I got to see Ishii take on Zack Sabre Jr. My prior exposure to Zack was the Cruiserweight Classic, where he primarily faced fellow technical wizards. I wasn’t sure what to expect out of such a stark styles clash, but these two worked together perfectly. I loved seeing Ishii play the underdog, despite being the guy with a harder-hitting style and more meat on the bones. It felt so different from how popular American wrestling approached matches with guys who were more technically oriented. If this match takes place in WWE or Impact at the time, perhaps Ishii dominates for seven minutes until Zack finds a flash pin. Instead, we see Ishii struggling to get out of ZSJ’s unique submissions until he finally finds a way to win.

With that hard-fought victory, “Big Match Tom” was in the finals with my boy at the time, Kenny Omega. While Omega was the seemingly obvious favorite, given the current push he was getting, Ishii had gotten upsets over two pretty notable names. To the credit of both men, they totally played into this dynamic. Ishii did everything in his power to overcome the odds and become the inaugural United States Champion, but in the end, Omega was simply too hot to lose. I was excited for this outcome, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t rooting for the scrappy, rope-biting underdog by the end.

These are the matches that reignited my passion for wrestling, at a time where the other companies on American television were losing me.

From this point on, Tomohiro Ishii was a staple in my favorite New Japan matches.

Frankly, I can’t think of anybody who has as good of chemistry with such a high volume of individuals with varying styles. The primary stories were never about him, but he has always been key in progressing the main characters to their larger stories, whether it’s having classics with the eventual Wrestle Kingdom headliners or teaming with Okada in a surprisingly excellent preview tag match.

However, it’s not just the top stars he gels with; I would argue he is the single best guy you can put in the ring with younger guys, as just in the past year and a half, he has put in tremendous effort to make the likes of Ren Narita, David Finlay, and Clark Connors look like stars.

Whether they turn out to be stars comes down to them and the booking committee, but either way, Ishii will be remembered as among their greatest early opponents.

Even if you just need a midcard program with great matches, Ishii is often the best bet. It doesn’t matter if it’s a singles feud for the NEVER title or if he’s tasked with elevating the 6-man tag team division, it is a guarantee that he will have the crowd at the edge of their seat.

All of this is what makes Ishii one of the best to ever do it and an all-time favorite of mine.