Match of the Year Candidates: Ishii vs. Honma

2015 kicked off with a bang, with three matches that are potential Match of the Year in January. February was no slouch either, with some great matches in NXT and NJPW. But one match in February stood above all the rest, and is my favorite match of the year so far.  At The New Beginning in Sendai event on February 14th, two hard hitting wrestlers went toe to toe in a spectacular display of the Japanese “strong style.”

At New Beginnings, Tomohiro Ishii and Tomoaki Honma clashed for the vacant NEVER Openweight Championship in a brutal matchup.

The Players
Tomohiro Ishii: After being introduced to the New Japan product at WrestleKingdom 9, Ishii instantly became one of my new favorite wrestlers. The “Stone Pitbull” is a member of CHAOS, and while he does not have the list of accomplishments or the dramatic flashiness that his stablemates Nakamura and Okada have, he is a key component in that faction. In many ways, Ishii has been synonymous with the NEVER title, having been champion twice before, and is the epitome of the hard hitting style the NEVER title represents. His finisher is the brainbuster, a vertical suplex where he drops his victim right on their head.

Tomoaki Honma: In many ways, Honma’s career reminds me of Mick Foley. Honma got his start in Death Matches in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and was even the first wrestler to use a light tube in a match, now a mainstay of death matches everywhere. He worked to shed the label of being just a hardcore guy, joining New Japan Pro Wrestling. He is one of the most popular wrestlers in New Japan, and a perfect example of a losing streak being done right. Honma was winless in the 2014 G1 Climax, and has yet to win a major singles match in New Japan. But the crowd was behind him, and “Honmania” was running wild. Honma’s major weapon is the kokeshi, a leaping/falling headbutt that he attempts from many different positions. The Kokeshi is an unreliable move though, missing as often as it hits.

The Story
Honma went through all of 2014 without picking up a win, but scored the pinfall in his six-man tag match at WrestleKingdom 9. Later that night, Ishii lost the NEVER title to Honma’s friend and tag partner, Togi Makabe. There was to be a rematch at New Beginning, but Makabe developed a serious case of the flu, and was unable to defend his title. So New Japan vacated the belt, and made this match instead. Honma, looking to finally win a major singles match, and Ishii, looking to regain the title he had become synonymous with.

A simple story, just two men about to go balls to the wall to prove themselves tougher.

The Match
NEVER Openweight Championship Match: Tomohiro Ishii vs. Tomoaki Honma.

The crowd is firmly behind Honma before the bell rings, chanting his name. Ishii has his shoulder taped up due to a lingering injury. They grapple into the ropes, and Honma gives a clean break. Again they go into the ropes, but Ishii chooses to slap Honma instead. This sets off a furious exchange of elbows. The two of them are just wailing on each other with stiff elbow strikes, neither one giving an inch until an elbow strikes Ishii in the eye. Honma attempts his first Kokeshi on a prone Ishii but he rolls out of the way, leading to Honma planting his own head into the mat. He’s up and goes for another, bouncing off the ropes for momentum, but again Ishii moves, leaving Honma stunned.

Ishii kicked Honma casually, disrespectfully, in the head. He starts chopping Honma in the neck, shrugging off Honma’s attempts to fight back. Ishii traps Honma in the corner and batters him with chops and elbows. Honma finally gets rolling with  a bulldog and goes for another Kokeshi, and again Ishii rolls out of the way. They get to their feet and start chopping each other in the throat and chest. They keep going, and going, and going. For one minute and seven seconds the two of them exchange chops until Honma knocked Ishii down with a ax handle, and hits a Kokeshi to Ishii’s injured shoulder!

Honma and Ishii struggle to suplex each other, dead lifting each other halfway up before Ishii finally gets the advantage, lifting Honma over his head for a vertical suplex. He then puts Honma on the top rope, Honma knocks Ishii off though, and hits Shalimar Tea, a flying neckbreaker. Ishii responds with a stiff chop to the throat, earning a warning from the referee. Ishii does it again, then folds up Honma with a powerbomb. Honma kicks out, the crowd chanting his name. A big clotheline to the neck from Ishii, and Honma counters a second one with a DDT, planting Ishii’s head into the mat. They exchange clothelines, then elbows, then charge into each other with clothelines, falling to the mat.

Ishii winds up out on the ring apron, and Honma clothelines him off and slams him into the mat. Then, in one of the most insane thing I’ve ever seen, Honma climbs to the top rope and leaps off! From the top rope to the ring floor, Honma hits Ishii headfirst with a Kokeshi! Both men barely beat the 20 count to get back into the ring. Honma has momentum, winning another clotheline battle. Ishii throws Honma with a back suplex, buying himself some time to recover. Honma is up first, and he mimics Ishii’s disrespectful kicks to the head from the beginning of the match. But now Ishii is pissed, letting Honma elbow him, going so far as to lean into the elbow strikes before knocking Honma on his ass.

Ishii hits a running clotheline combo to the front and back of Honma, lifts him up for a brainbuster, but Honma floats over, leaping into running Ishii with a Kokeshi! They two struggle to suplex each other, Honma slowly dead lifting Ishii up, and dropping him on his head. Brainbuster! Ishii kicks out. Another leaping Kokeshi, this one to the back of Ishii’s head, and Honma pulls Ishii into a reverse piledriver! Ishii barely kicks out. Honma hits another Kokeshi to the injured shoulder, then climbs to the top rope. A top rope Kokeshi misses as Ishii rolls out of the way.

Ishii throws Honma with a German Suplex but Honma rolls to his feet. They clotheline each other and both men collapse. They crawl slowly to their feet, and exchange tired elbows, gaining strength with each strike. Each time one of them falls the other go for a desperate pin attempt to end the match. Ishii goes for a brainbuster, but Honma counters with a standing headbutt. So Ishii headbutts him back, knocking Honma down, and slides into him with a low clothesline to the back of the head. Ishii lifts Honma up one last time, dropping him on his head with a brainbuster, and finally getting the win.

Winner: Tomohiro Ishii

Analysis
A play by play does not do this match justice. There’s no way I can properly convey the level of intensity these two threw at each other with each clothesline and elbow strike. American wrestlers don’t hit each other this hard; heck, most Japanese wrestlers don’t hit each other this hard. There were moments I legitimately thought someone was going to break their neck. This kind of stiff match is not for everyone, but I love it.

This match had a lot going for it besides just being a stupidly hard hitting affair. The outcome was in doubt until the very end, with no easily predictable winner.  Both men took an extreme amount of punishment and kept coming back, and you were never sure if any move would keep someone down. Honmania was running wild this night, the normally subdued Japanese crowd on their feet for their underdog. This remains my favorite match of the year, and gets the full *****

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