“Yuji Nagata is 46 years old, is he any good?” was the question I brought to my best wrestling friend the day before The New Beginning in Sendai, February 13, 2015. I had been mooching off his NJPW World account for the last month ever since Wrestle Kingdom 9 and was still in the process of trying to understand what to expect from the New Japan Pro-Wrestling roster. He hit me with “Hell yeah, dude. He’s really good.” so I loaded up the coffee maker and prepared myself for the long night ahead.
I was living with my partner at the time and they didn’t understand why I was making an ordeal out of watching this foreign event that didn’t start until two in the morning. Reflecting back, I’m not sure either. Wrestle Kingdom 9 was my first experience watching NJPW in real time and other than Shinsuke Nakamura looking like a weirdo, nothing stood out to me. Coming in, I knew AJ Styles from TNA, The Young Bucks from PWG and I had a taste of the NJPW roster thanks to the previous year’s War of the Worlds. All of that proved good enough to get me in the door but one match is to credit for causing me to stay.
Although both Tomohiro Ishii and Tomoaki Honma had passed through my corneas before, neither had yet to make a lasting impression. I had prepared my night around seeing a man in his mid-40s take on the guy who had left the biggest impact on me to date in Nakamura. Little did I know, my scope on wrestling was about to expand and take shape into something completely unrecognizable from what it was just three hours prior.
This may come off hyperbolic to those who didn’t live it in real time but Tomoaki Honma was the most over man in NJPW during this period. Since returning to the company in the spring of 2013, the only singles matches Honma won were either over young lions or due to Takashi Iizuki disqualifications. He made his G1 Climax debut in 2014 as a last minute substitution for the injured Kota Ibushi and would end the tournament with a winless record of 0-10. This sparked a movement dubbed ‘Honmania’ where the fans were chomping at the bit to see Honma score his first big win.
Wrestle Kingdom 9 saw Togi Makabe defeat Tomohiro Ishii for the NEVER Openweight Championship. The following month Makabe would be forced to vacate the title due to illness but instead of just being handed the NEVER belt, Ishii was challenged by Makabe’s Great Bash Heel stablemate, Tomoaki Honma.
These weren’t storylines I was privey to before the bell. Instead, what I saw was the guy with the coolest looking gear I had ever seen. Honma was decked out in his traditional yellow but on the back of his trunks was a rockabilly design that featured a busty babe in leather posing next to a skelton who was rocking a pink mohawk. As a punk rock kid, this is now the guy I’m giving my full support to and nothing can stop me.
The match opens and the guy I’ve just declared as my ride or die refuses to stop trying to land this headbutt. I’ve hitched my wagon to a dud; I feel it already. I picked the loser; why do I always do this to myself? He finally lands the headbutt and Sendai comes unglued. My ears perk up, Honma is my guy once again and the remainder of a match becomes an emotional rollercoaster.
After landing the headbutt, I learn my guy is an absolute looney tune. He slams Ishii on the floor and heads up to the top rope where he connects with yet another headbutt. To this day I can’t watch that spot without getting goosebumps and I feel them coming on now just typing about the scene. This was the defining moment of my fandom. That day I declared myself a loyal supporter of Tomoaki Honma.
They finish up the match with an incredible test of wills which saw Honma continue to take it to Ishii by standing him on his head with a DDT, stealing his brainbuster finish and popping him up into a reverse piledriver. The amount of gross-out moments in the match had me screaming like a maniac. My partner told me later that morning the noises I was making caused them to wake up in the middle of the night. 5am isn’t the middle of the night, grow up.
I’ve always felt like an outsider in the NJPW community. I was too late to feel the gravity of Hiroshi Tanahashi versus Kazuchika Okada and my fandom was already cemented before the rise of Kenny Omega. I came in during the absolute peak of Honmania. My guy was Tomoaki Honma. The guy who was accused of beating his long-time partner later the same year, the guy who would go down with a serious neck injury two years later and the guy who has never been the same since this match.
I’m forced to credit my NJPW fandom to an extremely problematic wrestler who wrestled an equally problematic style that helped lead him to his ultimate downfall. I’m linked to a guy who was the most beloved man on the entire roster before his demons caught up to him in an extremely heartbreaking manor that changed the lives of more people than just him.