Kenta Kobashi is the greatest wrestler of all time.
From 1993 until 2006, Kobashi wrestled at the highest level imaginable and was untouchable in terms of how good he was. He had the perfect combination of strength, skill, agility, technique, natural charisma and superhuman toughness. In essence, Kobashi is what you’d get if you combined John Cena, Bret Hart, Kurt Angle, Shawn Michaels and Mick Foley into one wrestler. Despite his body wearing down after over a decade of intense wrestling, he still performed at a godlike level. He was so good that he put in the same level of dedication to wrestling in 2006 as he did when he was a rookie. Fans all over the world (and especially in his native Japan) recognized that he was a special wrestler, which is why they flocked to see him fight.
In 2003, Kobashi returned from being sidelined for almost two full years to become Pro Wrestling NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Champion. Despite his body being incredibly worn down, he wrestled as best he could because he carried this company on his shoulders. He took on all comers, facing off against challengers big and small. And on this night, on NOAH’s first-ever Tokyo Dome show, Kobashi faced off against one of his biggest rivals, Jun Akiyama.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
There is 12 years worth of history between these two wrestlers. Kobashi was Akiyama’s first-ever opponent. They faced off as opponents throughout the mid-to-late 1990s. Then Akiyama challenged then-champion Kobashi for AJPW’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship but lost in a hard-fought bout. Then the two of them formed the Burning stable before the NOAH split. In Kobashi’s last match before leaving for surgery, Akiyama defeated him by making him legitimately pass out. It was clear that Akiyama was a star on the rise.
While Kobashi was sidelined with surgeries, Akiyama was being groomed for NOAH’s top spot. He did the one thing that Kobashi never could: pin Misawa clean in the middle of the ring in singles competition. In 2001, Akiyama did this and became GHC Heavyweight Champion. After a so-so run, he lost the title, and it wouldn’t be until 2004 that he would get another shot at it.
But this time there was a much bigger challenge facing Akiyama. The champion was Kobashi, a man he never pinned cleanly in the ring. The only victory Akiyama held over Kobashi had an asterisk next to it because it wasn’t a clean, decisive pin. Akiyama thought to himself, “if I could pin Misawa, I can pin Kobashi.”
So the question was, could Akiyama finally do it?
This match took place on July 10, 2004.
This is for the GHC Heavyweight Championship. They lock up and Kobashi chops Akiyama, who DARES him to do so again. Another lock up leads to a strike exchange, which ends in another stalemate. Kobashi raises his arms and they do the test of strength. Kobashi starts gaining the power advantage and gets Akiyama to his knees but Akiyama out-wrestles Kobashi and reverses the pressure on his wrists. Clean break on the ropes followed by some more chops by Kobashi. Jumping shoulder tackle by Kobashi is answered by a jumping knee attack by Akiyama, and Akiyama then throws Kobashi out of the ring. Kobashi runs back into the ring as Akiyama stalls ringside.
They have a forearm-chop exchange for a good twenty seconds that is won by Kobashi’s vicious chops. Kobashi attempts a Russian leg sweep but Akiyama reverses it into a leg lock. That’s some outstanding psychology as Akiyama targets Kobashi’s surgically-repaired knee. Kobashi reaches the ropes but Akiyama locks in another leg lock targeting the same leg. Kobashi chops his way out of the hold. Kobashi hits a single-knee backbreaker followed by a Burning Sword (downward chop onto a bent-over opponent) and gets the first two-count of the match. Kobashi hits a rear face-lock followed by another Burning Sword. More neck-wrenching submission holds by Kobashi to begin wearing down Akiyama’s neck in preparation for his other neck-based signature moves. A third Burning Sword gets a two-count as Kobashi controls this match completely thus far.
Akiyama blocks a vertical suplex and the two exchange stiff strikes once more. Kobashi tries to murder Akiyama’s chest with chops, but Akiyama takes them like a man and no-sells. Kobashi hits more chops and goes for his trademark rolling back chop, but Akiyama ducks it and hits forearms of his own. Kobashi chops at Akiyama’s neck, ducks a clothesline and goes for a running shoulder tackle, to which Akiyama responds with a STIFF knee to Kobashi’s face. We’re at the ten-minute mark and Akiyama is now in control as he hits Kobashi with a DDT on the apron, sending Kobashi to the floor.
More vicious offense from Akiyama as he places his knee on the back of Kobashi’s head and drives him chest-first into the steel ring barricade. Akiyama places Kobashi on the apron and hits a Nakamura-style diving knee onto the back of Kobashi’s neck. Akiyama pins Kobashi as he gets back in the ring for a two-count, and then locks in a Figure-4 neck lock to further weaken Kobashi’s neck. Akiyama reluctantly releases the hold as Kobashi touches the rope with his foot. Kobashi tries to get some momentum, but Akiyama knocks him down from the second turnbuckle and locks in his King Crab Lock (guillotine choke), which Kobashi powers out of.
Akiyama hits multiple hard strikes to Kobashi as we hit the 15-minute mark, followed by a lifting Double-Underhook DDT and a diving elbow smash to the back of Kobashi’s head. Akiyama locks in the King Crab Lock in the centre of the ring as the fans cheer, but Kobashi rolls sideways and reaches the rope. Knee attack to Kobashi gets another two-count, followed by a Back suplex by Akiyama, which Kobashi reverses into a side headlock, of all things. Kobashi keeps his massive arms wrapped around Akiyama’s head for a long time, getting two quick two-counts, before Akiyama tries another back suplex, but Kobashi still keeps the headlock locked in. Well, at least now we know where Randy Orton gets his inspiration.
Both Kobashi and Akiyama get to their feet and Kobashi gets a sleeper suplex to shift the momentum in his favor. Machine gun chops by Kobashi turns Akiyama’s chest a frightening shade of red. This is followed by three VICIOUS rolling back chops to Akiyama’s neck that sends him to the mat. We’re twenty minutes in as Kobashi pulls Akiyama onto the ring apron and hits a vertical suplex from the apron to the floor! Good God, what a vicious move. Akiyama literally bounced several inches off the ringside mats when he landed. Damn, I was certain he’d have broken ribs or something like that.
Kobashi drags Akiyama into the ring at a count of 15 and gets a 2.5-count on Akiyama. Kobashi decides to tenderize Akiyama’s neck even more and hits a brutal Half-Nelson Suplex that sends Akiyama landing directly on his head. Kobashi lifts Akiyama and prepares to his the Burning Lariat, but Akiyama blocks that and attempts an Exploder. Kobashi blocks that and chops Akiyama’s neck and hits the Orange Crush Bomb (vertical suplex Powerbomb) for a 2.75-count! Wow, what an amazing move! Kobashi gets up first and appears to have internal injuries (you can see blood on his lips and teeth) and hits the BURNING LARIAT for a two-count. Kobashi hoists Akiyama onto the top turnbuckle and then onto his shoulders for the Burning Hammer, but Akiyama blocks it and hits a German Suplex. But Kobashi no-sells that and eats a running knee to the face as we reach the twenty-five-minute mark.
Akiyama teases an Exploder from the apron, but again Kobashi powers his way out and teases an apron Half-Nelson of his own. They keep reversing out of each other’s holds and Kobashi fights back with more stiff chops. Kobashi climbs the turnbuckle but Akiyama catches him off guard and hits an exploder suplex from the top turnbuckle all the way to the floor! MY GOD, WHAT BRUTALITY!! Kobashi landed HARD, and even though the ringside area is padded, that landing HAS to hurt a lot.
The fans start erupting in cheers as the announcer makes the ring count. Akiyama makes it in at 16 and Kobashi JUST makes it in at 19.5. Akiyama goes for a pin but Kobashi gets hit foot on the rope, showing some great ring awareness. Akiyama is in full control as he hits another Exploder Suplex for a 2.5-count. Akiyama then lifts Kobashi on the top rope and hits an Avalanche Explder for two pins, both of which get a 2.8-count.
We’re now at the 30-minute mark in this brutal war. Akiyama locks in both a leg lock and his King Crab Lock for a double submission to try and get Kobashi to tap out. That fails, and Akiyama signals the end as he nails the Wrist-Clutch Exploder Suplex. That SHOULD be the end, but Kobashi astonishingly kicks out at 2.99999. Damn, this is absolutely nuts.
Akiyama then tries to lock in his newest super-finisher, the Sternness Dust Driver (wrist-lock Fisherman Driver), but Kobashi gets a sudden second wind and hits a BRUTAL vertical drop Brainbuster out of nowhere. Akiyama is somehow up before Kobashi and goes for a kick, which Kobashi no-sells and hits another strong rolling back chop. From there we get a BURNING SPIRIT moment as both Kobashi and Akiyama no-sell the hell out of each other’s suplexes. Half-Nelson by Kobashi, followed by an Exploder by Akiyama. One more of each followed by a Burning Lariat by Kobashi, but Akiyama is up two seconds later and tries to stay up but he can’t. Kobashi gets up slowly and drills Akiyama with a savage Burning Lariat, but again Akiyama kicks out at 2.8. With only a few options left, Kobashi scoop slams Akiyama and nails a picture-perfect diving moonsault but AGAIN, Akiyama barely kicks out. Wow, it has been YEARS since anyone kicked out of that moonsault. Realizing there’s only one thing left to do, Kobashi hoists Akiyama onto his shoulders and spikes him with the Burning Hammer!!
The referee counts one…two…THREE!
Winner and still GHC Heavyweight Champion after 35:34: Kenta Kobashi
To say this match was awesome would be an understatement. It was a prime example of the most basic story in Japanese wrestling: who is tougher. Akiyama was hellbent on beating Kobashi much like Kawada wanting to beat Misawa in the 1990s. But the biggest difference between the Kobashi-Akiyama rivalry and the Misawa-Kawada rivalry is that Akiyama and Kobashi seemed to be willing to literally kill each other to win the match.
When Kobashi suplexed Akiyama from the top rope to the floor, and when Akiyama did the same to Kobashi Exploder-style later on, it felt a bit extreme. Kobashi looked to be in legitimate pain from both moves, and as I said in my play-by-play review, he had blood in his mouth which was a worrying sight. But the match continued without interruption, which means that either, a) the damage wasn’t that serious; b) Kobashi is literally made of iron and endured the pain; or c) both. I’m going with b) on that one.
With that out of the way, I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this match. Despite a few scary spots brought about by realistic selling and awesome facial expressions, this was an absolute war to determine who the best was. Kobashi brought out the best in Akiyama and made him out to look like a monster threat. Kobashi only uses the Burning Hammer on the toughest opponents, so that move alone spoke volumes of how credible a threat Akiyama was in this match.
Akiyama was no slouch either, showing his own athleticism many times. He actually out-grappled Kobashi on several occasions and showed his own mastery of psychology by attacking Kobashi’s neck with moves the same way Kobashi likes to. To that end, this match was 50-50 until the very last minute, which made it more dramatic. There was no way to ‘telegraph’ who would win, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats for the entire time.
As for the story, once again Kobashi was involved in a well-crafted tale of a match. There were plenty of call-backs to their previous singles match, such as in 1998 when Akiyama challenged Kobashi for AJPW’s Triple Crown title. There was also the submission spot where Akiyama locked in two holds at once, having the gall to target Kobashi’s knees while also trying to make him legitimately pass out to the King Crab Lock a second time. These references to previous encounters are crucial to why Japanese wrestling tends to get such high praise: each match is not a standalone entity, but includes allusions to previous encounters that further a great story. This match proved that concept perfectly: it was the definitive conclusion to a 12-year story in front of the biggest audience in NOAH history.
Kobashi proved once again that he is some kind of wrestling superfreak. Despite having a similar body condition to Kurt Angle’s (only with even WORSE knees), Kobashi still put on a breathtaking performance. Akiyama looked like a truly worthy opponent in defeat, as Kobashi had to bust out his ultimate finisher just to keep Akiyama down.
Although this match is simply amazing in a vacuum, the booking consequences were actually terrible. Akiyama did everything he could to defeat Kobashi but still came up short. Kobashi won with such decisive finality that any future victories on Akiyama’s part wouldn’t mean anything. This contest was do-or-die for Akiyama, and he still lost.
In losing, Akiyama was shown his place: he was below Kobashi, and always would be.
Akiyama, the younger, healthier wrestler, was beneath the aging, worn-down Kobashi. What should’ve been a passing of the torch to the next generation of stars didn’t take place. Misawa did it for Kobashi in 2003, and oddly, the same didn’t occur for Akiyama in 2004.
If there was ever a time when a booking decision should’ve been reversed, it’s here. Akiyama was the only wrestler on NOAH’s roster not named Misawa that had enough credibility that they could defeat Kobashi and replace him as company ace. While there were others that posed legitimate threats to Kobashi’s title – Chono, Nagata, Takayama – they were all outsiders or part-timers, and weren’t seen as the future of NOAH. But Akiyama was in his prime and had far fewer injuries, and could also work well with both the established veterans and the rising stars of the company. There were ready-made feuds for him with guys like Marufuji, Morishima and KENTA, that could’ve drawn money. Instead, Kobashi won, and held the title for another eight months before losing it to Takeshi Rikio. If you don’t recognize that name, my point exactly.
Final Rating: *****
Despite some extreme spots that shouldn’t be replicated, and despite some questionable long-term booking consequences, this match kicked ass. It was brutal, dramatic, exciting, and required little to no understanding of language to understand and enjoy. If you like watching hellacious wars while biting your fingernails in anticipation not knowing who is going to win, this is the perfect match for you.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.