Welcome to Looking Back. Here, I will be reviewing either wrestling matches or rivalries, trying to explain as well as I can how much I enjoyed said match or rivalry, as well as narrating the whole story. Today, for this fourth edition, I will be focusing on what has been one of, if not my favourite match of 2018, and overall one of the best matches New Japan gave out in that same year : The Best Of The Super Juniors tournament final, between arguably the two hottest Junior Heavyweights in New Japan Pro Wrestling at that time. Los Ingobernables de Japon’s own Ticking Time Bomb Hiromu Takahashi, against the former Junior Ace of Pro Wrestling NOAH and newest Bullet Club member, the Bone Soldier “Reborn” Taiji Ishimori.
Let’s first start things off with a few bits of context. On hand hand, coming out of the top of the A Block with 10 points and most notably pinning Junior Heavyweight champion Will Ospreay in his first singles match back in New Japan, Taiji Ishimori. On the other hand, coming out of the top of the B block with the same amount of points, a man who’s sole purpose is to put “Mr Belt” back around his waist, growing frustration after losing his last opportunity at the title he misses so dearly at New Beginning, Hiromu Takahashi. Both men are the two hottest men in the division coming into this match. Adding to their 5-2 records in the tournament, one benefitted from a fresh return under a totally new banner, while the other managed to gain an outstanding support from fans everywhere he goes as months went by.
This is what leads us to this first time ever, featuring what definitely feels like the best of New Japan’s Junior Heavyweights.
Being a first match ever, both men start things off feeling each other out, however it won’t take long for this match to reach high intensity levels quickly. As soon as both men go for a first test of strength, where Ishimori pushes Takahashi on the ropes, the former tries to chop his opponent, leading our first Junior-esque sequence of the match : Both men try an irish whip of their own, Takahashi lands a forearm, drives Ishimori on the middle rope which he kicks, only to hit Ishimori with a running dropkick, propelling the latter on the outside. Ishimori however, quickly comes back in as Takahashi ran in the ropes, most likely to dive on the outside, resulting in Ishimori landing a headscissors as an equalizer. He’d try to drive Takahashi in the corner, but the latter slides out of the ring, running around the corner and getting back in, as Ishimori follows. As Ishimori gets on the apron, Takahashi is already running at him and goes for an early sunset bomb, which Ishimori would prevent from jumping off the apron, as Takahashi tried to drive him on the floor. The match already keeps getting more intense as both men start going for a striking exchange on the outside, which Takahashi wins after pushing Ishimori into the barricade. Takahashi throws his opponent above said barricade and follows him, proceeding to climb the stairs and take their fight closer to the public. They’d go on the other quick exchange, where Takahashi again gains the upper hand. He then takes a bit of distance as Ishimori still is laying on the ground, waits for him to get in position, and runs at him, hitting another running dropkick with full momentum, propelling Ishimori all the way to the wall. The excited crowd chants for Hiromu, but this first heavy shot wouldn’t be all Takahashi had planned for his opponent, as he sets Ishimori up for a powerbomb, aiming for the stairs. However once again, Ishimori pulls off the equalizer with a hurricanrana, thus driving Takahashi in the stairs, rolling all the way down. Reminder : We are only five minutes in.
Red Shoes proceeds to start the 20 count after making sure both men could keep going. Ishimori goes back to the ring as the count reaches 15, while a seemingly damaged Takahashi makes a last second comeback between the ropes. Ishimori then starts assaulting Takahashi neck, first with a side neck lock combined with tackles, followed by a snapmare and his signature neck twist, using the legs. The assault would continue as Takahashi rolls on the outside, as Ishimori follows, first driving him head first in the corner post, then driving him in chairs and using one of them to choke Takahashi. After giving enough time for photographers to take pictures of his work, Ishimori gets back in the ring, waiting for his opponent who joins him shortly after, still suffering but far from ready to stay down. The match keeps the same track as Ishimori chops Takahashi after putting him in the corner, and drives him in the opposite one. Hiromu tries to counter Ishimori, who was running towards him, by lifting his legs, but the latter grabs them, positions his foe seated on the second rope (facing the crowd), kicks him the back of the head and lands his signature sliding german suplex, again targeting the upper back. After getting back in the ring, Ishimori applies a headlock to wear his opponent down, which is smart considering how Takahashi operates when delivering offense. Takahashi will manage to get back on his feet, freeing himself using a few elbows, and tries to gain momentum by running in the ropes, however Ishimori manages to apply a headlock again, then proceeding to get back to the mat while maintaining the hold. Ultimately, Takahashi manages to get one of his feet on the rope, allowing himself a little breather. That wouldn’t last long as Ishimori gets Takahashi in the corner, chops him and tries for an irish whip, aiming for the opposite corner. Takahashi counters with an irish whip of his own, but Ishimori counters as well, going around the ropes, sliding under his opponent, positioning himself on the apron and tackling Takahashi, who could barely keep up with Ishimori’s speed there. The Bone Soldier goes tries for a springboard, but we’ll never know what should have followed, as Takahashi punches Ishimori, thus making him fall all the way to the floor. Hiromu seizes the opportunity, as when Ishimori starts getting back on the apron, he runs in the ropes and goes back to the sunset bomb, which will land this time. For the first time in now a little while, it is Takahashi who gets the momentum back on his side, as Ishimori only makes it back to the ring at the last second, feeling the impact of one of Takahashi’s most damaging moves.
After getting back in, Ishimori stands in the corner trying to recover. Takahashi hits him with a running lariat, drives him into a seating position and ends up with a running dropkick. He then goes for the first pinfall attempt of the match, but only gets a two count. Takahashi then tries to drive Ishimori in the corner but the opposite happens. Ishimori runs towards Takahashi who also counters with a boot to the face, only to go for a Tarantula using the ropes close to the corner, releasing the hold at the last second. Takahashi then grabs Ishimori’s leg and puts him in a wheelbarrow position using the apron, slamming him on the floor face first. Takahashi’s fury continues as, once Ishimori got back on his feet, Hiromu was standing on the apron, ready to run and jump straight towards his opponent, dropkicking him right into the close by chairs, where the fans would usually seat. Takahashi fires himself up to the cheers of the crowd, slides his opponent back in the ring, climbs to the top rope, and lands a diving senton to the standing yet groggy Ishimori. He follows with a second pinfall attempt, gets a second two count. At this point, the gap has clearly been closed regarding the inflicted damage.
Takahashi sets Ishimori up with a fireman’s carry, but the latter escapes, looks for his handspring kick, but receives a lariat to the back. Takahashi again goes for a fireman’s carry, tries for the dynamite plunger, but gets rolled into a pin by Ishimori, who only gets a two count yet quickly transitions into a crossface. Ishimori holds on for a whole minute until Takahashi finally manages to touch the rope with his foot, allowing the rope break. Both men really start to feel the effects of the inflicted punishment as they go for another striking exchange, landing heavy strikes while struggling to keep their balance. Takahashi manages to take the advantage, runs in the ropes, but Ishimori takes the same direction at the last second, gaining speed himself, going for another headscissors, but uses the momentum he gained to transition into a crossface, wearing Takahashi down and fully applying the hold for the second time. Takahashi would try sliding towards the ropes, but Ishimori rolls him back at the center of the ring, only to lock his submission again. The crowd is literally panicking at the idea of their favourite tapping out, as Takahashi almost does it, but manages yet again to get a foot on the rope to break the hold, even though Ishimori had tried to prevent his opponent from doing so.
Takahashi gets back on his feet in the corner, but Ishimori runs at him, aiming to hit him knees first. Takahashi dodges and tries to retaliate, Ishimori dodges him as well and again goes for the double knees, but there too, his opponent avoids him. Takahashi tries to hit a german suplex, but Ishimori lands on his feet. He runs back at Takahashi who propels him back first into the corner, similar to a belly to back suplex. He then hits Ishimori with a running lariat and the Dynamite Plunger, but only gets a nearfall. The flurry continues as Takahashi hits Ishimori with a lariat in the corner. He lifts him up, joins him, and hits him with a move I can’t even name : Hiromu puts himself in a wheelbarrow position on Ishimori, only to roll and drive him down just like a powerbomb. This move which still blows my mind more than a year after seeing it, only gets Takahashi a two count as well. He then sets Ishimori up on his shoulders and drives him in the corner, setting up his finisher, which he goes for after firing himself up. Ishimori escapes, Takahashi sees his thrust kick blocked, but same goes for Ishimori’s knee strike, allowing Takahashi to hit his kick and gain momentum. Ishimori boots Takahashi to cut him off and hits a reverse Frankensteiner, but Takahashi gets back on his feet to hit one of his one right after.
Both men can barely even stand after this, so their next striking exchange first starts while both competitors are on their knees. Takahashi may have looked like he was enjoying this exchange, rocking all of Koruaken Hall, after both men finally getting back on their feet, he is the first one to crumble down, trying to answer to Ishimori’s strike. Ishimori pulls Takahashi back up, allowing him to get back in the exchange, even getting the upper hand until Ishimori countered with a jumping knee. Takahashi fires himself up only to run into his opponent’s lariat, who goes for the pin, only to get a one count ! That wouldn’t change the dynamic however, as Ishimori propels Takahashi into the corner with a running dropkick, and follows by running knees first into his opponent’s face. Ishimori then sets Takahashi in a tombstone position, only to land on his own back, thus hitting Takahashi’s face with his knees. He then goes for the pin but only gets a nearfall. Ishimori points at his opponent, doing his Bone Soldier taunt and goes for the Bloody Cross, but sees it countered into an armdrag by Takahashi. The latter jumps at Ishimori but takes a powerbomb, gets caught in a pin attempt which he counters into his triangle choke. He even shows the awareness to roll back to the center of the ring.
After a good while spent in the hold while trying to find a way to escape, Ishimori finally gives himself a break as he manages to pull Takahashi off the ground, driving him in the corner. He follows with a lariat in the corner, then slams Takahashi back first, only setting him up as Ishimori slides on the apron, climbing to the top rope. He goes for a 450 splash, but Takahashi lifts his knees up to counter at the last second. Takahashi will take advantage in the following sequence, managing to go back to his submission after hitting what looked like a Tiger Driver. Ishimori would not give up however as he manages to get his foot on the rope, but he would only put a temporary stop to his opponent’s fury. Takahashi tries to set up his finisher, Ishimori tries to counter with his finisher, but it is Takahashi gaining the upper hand, thus setting up a fireman’s carry and driving Ishimori in the corner. Takahashi fires himself up one more time to the roaring Koruaken Hall, sets up the Timebomb and finally hits it to win the match, after 34 grueling minutes of intense, fast paced wrestling.
I can only say one thing about this match : It is special. The escalating intensity reaching heights I don’t think anyone could have imagined before the match, the very smart work going on from bell to bell by both men. This was exactly what you would expect from a tournament final, and I don’t mean from the wrestlers alone. The crowd was on fire and it elevated the match.
While both men had absolutely no history together prior to this encounter, they had really good chemistry and managed to tell a very good story, regarding Hiromu in particular. Takahashi’s drive is reflected during that contest, through his will of pulling all the stops and never going down. You can clearly feel he just wouldn’t be denied, yet Ishimori made for a great, if not the perfect opponent to make you doubt, if you were believing in Takahashi’s win on that day. A modern example of what a great Junior Heavyweight match is.