By John Muse
Who springs to your mind when you’re asked “What is a Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Famer?”
You might say Lou Thesz, Terry Funk (the GOAT, never forget), Ric Flair, Antonio Inoki, Baba-san, Bruiser Brody, your favorite Pillar, or others who stand among the giants of the past.
You might say Bryan Danielson, Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi (always the Ace), Tetsuya Naito, Chris Jericho, or others who are the gold standard of the present.
It’s very easy to look at the people already in the WON HOF and say ‘that is a Hall of Famer’ right there. They worked main events, drew money, made history, held prominent titles, influenced the business or others, and had great matches. They check all the boxes as some say.
As defined by the voting criteria, a Hall of Famer is a combination of the following:
1. Drawing power
2. Being a great in-ring performer or excelling in one’s field in pro wrestling
3. Having historical significance in a positive manner
Here’s the thing: A person doesn’t have to check every box to be worthy of the Hall of Fame.
In the same criteria, it says, “A candidate should either have something to offer in all three categories, or be someone so outstanding in one or two of those categories that they deserve inclusion.”
Yes, you can be a Hall of Famer if you check one or two boxes… you just better be outstanding.
For your consideration, I present the case for Tomohiro Ishii.
Though he is known mostly for his work in New Japan, Ishii is from the Genechiro Tenryu and Riki Choshu cloth. He started work with Tenryu’s WAR promotion in 1996 and remained with them until WAR faded in the late 90s. Ishii became a freelancer and worked in multiple promotions for the next several years. Regular work with New Japan started in 2006 at the age of 30. While he has worked primarily in New Japan since that time, Ishii has worked for other promotions in Japan, US (AEW, IMPACT, and ROH), UK (RevPro and WCPW), Ireland (OTT), and Mexico (CMLL).
Tomohiro Ishii’s career is unique. He began wrestling years before Hiroshi Tanahashi but joined New Japan around the same time as Tetsuya Naito, Kazuchika Okada, and the core group that came later to take New Japan to new heights. He’s long been with New Japan but he’s not of New Japan.
Criteria 1: Drawing power
The weakest part of Ishii’s resume is the drawing criteria. Because he was never pushed consistently in the main event scene for New Japan, a perception exists that Ishii has nothing here. Some may say, “He is only an undercard guy.”
This perception is not true.
After reviews of every Cagematch singles match and some statistical assistance, Ishii has worked at least 72 singles main events for 13 promotions in three countries. Tag team matches in Japan were not fully researched because of time, but I did find New Japan, RevPro, and CMLL tag main events for him. CMLL adds another promotion and country.
After a handful of main events between 2000 and 2005, Ishii had 50 singles mains from 2007-2023 with New Japan. Among them was an IWGP Title match vs Naito, NEVER title challenges/defenses, and 21 G1 main events. The G1 is New Japan’s top tournament every year and plays a big part in setting the table for the promotion. We’ll talk about G1 in a bit.
If you’ve followed Ishii closely, you understand that he is incredibly popular in Korakuen Hall. Korakuen is sacred wrestling ground in Japan. The Korakuen Hall audience has witnessed history and watched legends battle for decades. The foundation of the Pillars is rooted in that glorious building. Those fans have seen the best. Ishii stands among them and has headlined sellouts there, including one was against Yujiro, folks. All totaled, he has at least 22 Korakuen Hall singles main events.
Beyond Korakuen and Japan, Ishii’s exploits created a following in the West equal with any other modern NJPW star. A Cagematch analysis of main events in the UK for cards that were not under the NJPW banner shows that Ishii has had more singles mains than Okada, Tanahashi, and Naito combined. Minoru Suzuki has more total UK mains but not as many singles mains as Ishii.
UK Main Events (non NJPW or Dragon Gate specific solo shows)
Kazuchika Okada – 2 (1 single, 1 tag)
Tetsuya Naito – 1 (1 tag)
Hiroshi Tanahashi – 1 (1 single)
Shingo Takagi – 3 (3 single)
Minoru Suzuki – 10 (5 single, 5 tag)
Tomohiro Ishii – 8 (7 single, 1 tag)
The ‘who headlines’ question is a promoter’s decision based on taste, business conditions, sustainability, value, and goals. While he may not have extensive main event history in New Japan, NJPW continues to give him opportunities. Overseas promoters value him enough (and are able) to fly him in to work and headline shows. He’s even been their champion.
While the degree of Ishii’s impact at the box office may not be clear, promoters across the world would not have chosen him to headline shows if he didn’t offer value.
Criteria 2: Being a great in-ring performer or excelling in one’s field in pro wrestling
This is the strongest part of his case and the reason we are here.
I could spend paragraphs here telling you why I personally think he is great. Instead, I’m going to let others help me do that.
Data has been gathered from two sources; Dave Meltzer WON star ratings and Cagematch match guide ratings. Feel free to use whichever source you prefer. For this case, I reviewed every singles match/card that has Ishii listed as of 10/13 (prior to the great Ishii vs Takagi at Royal Quest). Along with that, I pulled career ratings for several people on the current ballot and 37 HOF members.
(Left) Ishii is behind Omega, Shingo, and Kota Ibushi for WON star ratings and ahead of 35 HOF members and six others currently on the ballot.
(Right) Ishii is second on Cagematch behind Kenta Kobashi and neck and neck with Kenny Omega. He is ahead of 35 HOF members and and seven others on the ballot. Take note that Shingo Takagi is right in that mix near the top. (Vote Shingo too!)
Two different sources and the placement is nearly the same.
There are nuances in data like this. Sample sizes under 50 should be taken with a grain of salt. The benefit of Cagematch is in crowdsourcing but lower samples can influence ratings. In the case of the Pillars, singles-only ratings are not accounting for an All-Japan staple in their era, the superb six-mans and the Holy Demon Army, Super Generation Army, and Tsuruta-Gun tag wars. Some of the best matches of an entire era for their resumes are not being reflected here.
Ultimately, this is less about Ishii being ahead as much as showing him amongst all-time greats in-ring. For an in-ring case alone, this is a precedent. If looking for a big picture case precedent, Hiroshi Hase (inducted 2006) would be that answer. Ishii’s case is stronger. If you scan the list, you may find other cases where Ishii is stronger in your taste. It would not be ‘lowering the bar’ to induct Tomohiro Ishii.
Ishii is considered by some to be the best modern G1 wrestler. The praise is deserved. He has had utterly fantastic G1 matches. The G1 stature itself has been elevated in part through Ishii’s work but let’s clear something up — Ishii is not great in the G1.
Sorry if you believed that.
WON stars: 4.31 (76 rated G1) to 4.33 (73 rated NON-G1 singles).
Cagematch avg. rating for G1 is 8.14 in 83 rated matches.
Cagematch avg. rating for NON-G1 is 8.01 in 110 rated singles matches.
Those are not significant variances. Cagematch has G1 slightly ahead. WON has non-G1 slightly ahead.
Consistency is the point. The numbers say Ishii brings the same in-ring performance G1 or not.
Simply put, Ishii performs at a high-level almost every time out regardless of G1, event, opponent, crowd size, promotion, and country. Tomohiro Ishii is not just the G1.
In-ring odds and ends
As part of the analysis, I looked at quality, other match ratings within the shows, and gathered average ratings against all of Ishii’s opponents.
Through that, some interesting data points emerged:
1. Like other greats (Ric Flair and Terry Funk come to mind), Ishii exhibits an ability to have great or ‘best’ matches from opponents with lesser skill and those with less singles experience. He has gotten the best match out of Yujiro Takahashi (8.28) and Chase Owens (7.67) and has had better than normal matches with Toru Yano and Bad Luck Fale. On the younger or less experienced side, Clark Connors (8.12), Ren Narita (8.87), and Luke Jacobs (9.03) fit the bill with the latter two were near 5-stars.
2. Better bring it or Ishii will steal the show. I tracked shows where Ishii had best match on the show over other rated mains. WON ratings had Ishii beating or tying 46% of the time (109 non-mains rated). On Cagematch, Ishii had the best match 40% of the time (out of 140 non-mains). This trend was consistent from 2013 and continues. Some of the mains that Ishii’s match bested include Okada vs Naito, Ospreay vs Shingo, Ibushi vs Ospreay, Naito vs ZSJ, Ibushi vs Naito, Omega vs Goto, Nakamura vs Shibata, Styles vs Okada. Close percentages. Consistency.
3. It’s hard to steal from Ishii. In shows where Ishii was in the main, he had best match or tied 90% per WON (40 rated) and 88.7% of the time per Cagematch (53 rated). Again, consistency.
4. Quality. Current and unsorted numbers of high end matches of Ishii and his NJPW counterparts.
This is the WON Hall of Fame. As such, the WON Yearly awards do have some bearing with voters.
There is a full list at the bottom but here are a few noteworthy highlights. Ishii has won the Bruiser Brody Memorial Award (Best Brawler) six times (2014-19). Only HOFers Mick Foley (10x) and Bruiser Brody (7x) have won this award more times in 42 years.
Top ten finishes
Most Outstanding every year from 2013 to 2021, Most Underrated (6 of the last 10 years), and Match of the Year (6 of the last 10 years, some years with multiple matches).
Again, full list at the bottom. Singles titles of note include six-time NEVER Openweight Champion and two-time RevPro Undisputed British Heavyweight Champion.
As the ballot criteria states, longevity is a prime consideration. The information above touches on this so I will only summarize as we head into the closing comments. Ishii’s first main event was in 2000 and they continued through 2023. The earliest 8.00 Cagematch rating is in 2002 with high ratings from 2013 to today.
WON star ratings show the same pattern from 2013 onward. WON award (Best Brawler) wins and top-10 placements (Most Outstanding from 2013 to 2022), numerous match of the year candidates. All of this amounts to 11 years or more of verifiable information from multiple sources/opinions. Consistency. Longevity.
“A candidate should either have something to offer in all three categories, or be someone so outstanding in one or two of those categories that they deserve inclusion.”
The criteria is clear… something in all three or outstanding in one or two.
We’ve talked about drawing power and in-ring performance. We’ve yet to talk about historical significance.
Throughout this case, we’ve seen HOF names.
If Ishii rates highly among over 35 people already in the HOF where in-ring performance was arguably part of their cases or their entire case with Hiroshi Hase, how can Ishii not be considered outstanding enough in that one category to warrant induction?
Ishii only needs that one box.
Further, it can be argued that performing at a level that places him alongside both the giants of the past and the present-day gold standards makes Tomohiro Ishii historically significant inside the ring.
That would give him two boxes.
Thanks to: Dave Meltzer, Joe Lanza, JD Oliva, Ethan Tyler, Adam Berger, and Chris Samsa for their support and assistance; Cagematch and their voters; Garrett Gonzales and FGM for hosting the article.
Title History and durations
NEVER Openweight Championship (6x) – 514 days
RevPro Undisputed British Heavyweight Championship (2x) – 168 days
WEW Heavyweight Championship – 959 days
ROH World Television Championship – 79 days
NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Team Championship (3x) – 631 days
IWGP Tag Team Championship – 61 days
NWA International Lightweight Tag Team Championship – 107 days
Tenryu Project International Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship (2x) – 117 days
Tenryu Project Six Man Tag Team Championship – 268 days
Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards
Lou Thesz/Ric Flair Award (Wrestler of the Year) – 2017 (9th)
Japanese MVP – 2018 (4th), 2020 (9th), 2021 (10th)
Europe MVP – 2018 (6th)
Bruiser Brody Memorial Award (Best Brawler)
– 1st Place: 6 times (2014 to 2019)
– 2nd Place: 3 times (2013, 2020, 2022)
– 3rd Place: 1 time (2021)
Note: Only Mick Foley and Bruiser Brody have won this award more times in 42 years. Both in HOF.
Match of the Year – (notice the range of opponents)
2013: 2nd (Shibata 8/4), 5th (Tanahashi 8/2)
2014: 5th (Goto 11/8), 9th (Naito 2/11), 10th (Honma 7/26)
2015: 8th (Honma 2/14)
2016: 3rd (Okada 8/6)
2018: T-4th (Omega 8/4)
2019: 6th (Takagi 8/8), 10th (Moxley 7/19)
2013 (10th), 2014 (2nd), 2015 (9th), 2016 (6th), 2017 (5th), 2018 (6th), 2019 (5th), 2020 (4th), 2021 (8th)
2013 (3rd), 2016 (7th), 2017 (2nd), 2018 (6th), 2019 (5th), 2020 (7th)