I started watching New Japan regularly in January 2017, so the idea that Tomoaki Honma was having five-star matches only a couple of years before is rather baffling to me. Honma wasn’t awful when I first tuned in (his injury has since seen him drop down to that level), but if you’d asked me to rank the roster, he would have been near the bottom.
Yet, here we are, it’s Honma vs one of my favourite wrestlers of all time, Tomohiro Ishii. To add some context, this took place in the middle of a period known as ‘Honmania’, a time in which Honma’s inability to get a win got him over with the crowd. He also wasn’t supposed to be wrestling Ishii on this show, but had stepped in to take the spot of an ill Togi Makabe at the last minute.
And you could probably make the argument that even back in 2015, Honma wasn’t a great wrestler. What he is, though, is insane. He lets Ishii beat the shit out of him in this match. It’s a classic Stone Pitbull war, as he looks to bullishly headbutt his way through his opponent, relying on brute strength to get the job done. The key, is that Honma refuses to die. With the fans chanting his name, the crazy bastard keeps getting up and fighting back. He’s throwing himself at Wide Tom, and that’s a move most consider bad for your health.
It works, though. It works because Honma is ridiculously over with those fans. That unhinged streak has them roaring their appreciation as he clambers to the top rope and hits a Kokeshi to the motherfucking floor. It’s an insane thing to do, and most wouldn’t even contemplate it, but Honma is right there, putting his body on the line to try and get the win. You buy him as the ultimate underdog because what he lacks in skill he doubles in heart and sheer bloody determination.
Credit, of course, must go to Ishii too. I’ve said it before, but there is no-one in the world of wrestling less appreciated than him. Yes, he is brilliant as the monster beating on Honma and suplexing him on his head. However, he’s also a vital part of those dramatic comebacks. No-one sells like Ishii, and if they do, they’re not as good at it. It’s the way he staggers around, desperately trying to stay on his feet in the hope that he can keep the fight going. Every strike Honma throws is made all the better by Tomohiro Ishii being the guy who takes it.
The final stretch has the fans roaring their delight and then shock as Ishii kicks out of every near fall. Time after time, Honma throws himself head first (literally) into the problem, desperately hoping that this will be the time the big man stays down. That time never comes. The Stone Pitbull is too much, and when push comes to shove, he has that bit more in the tank. The Brainbuster connects, and all the heart in the world can’t get Honma up after that.
I came into this match with no investment in Honma, and I loved it. It’s a brutal battle between two hard-hitting wrestlers who are willing to take a beating. I can’t imagine what it would be like watching it in the middle of all the hype that surrounded Honma at the time. It’s a fantastic example of how to tell an underdog story, and both men give one hell of a performance.