Few wrestlers are as joined at the hip as Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi. They’re two of the best wrestlers in history. They’re both famous for their incredible tenacity, brutal in-ring style, unpredictability, and adaptability. In my honest opinion, any wrestler looking to make a name for themselves should study these wrestlers’ performances to understand what makes a good wrestler great, and what makes a great wrestler legendary.
This is the second of three famous singles matches between Misawa and Kobashi that took place in the late 1990s. By this point in time, the AJPW still had evolved to a more dangerous level, where head-drops became more common and fighting spirit became more important than ever. Both of those critical aspects were on full display in this match. This match was originally rated 5-stars by the Wrestling Observer and was voted Match of the Year 1998 by the Wrestling Observer. Kobashi was also the defending Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion going into this contest.
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.
This match took place on Halloween – October 31, 1998.
The crowd is very loud as they do ring introductions, cheering and stomping in support of two of the best wrestlers to grace God’s green earth. Both get loud cheers, and Kobashi in particular looks to be in marvelous shape. Clearly the Road Warrior workout has done wonders to his physique.
The bell rings and the audience explodes in applause. They’re cheering both guys equally so the crowd noise sounds ambiguous. Their cheers are LOUD! The first lock-up ends in a clean break and more applause from the crowd. We get an outstanding exchange as signature strikes are blocked and reversed, Irish whips are reversed, and Kobashi reverses a leapfrog into a powerslam for a quick two-count to set the tone of the match. The crowd applauds in appreciation for the technical sequence they’ve just witnessed. These two wrestlers know each other perfectly and know when to counter each other’s big moves.
Kobashi wins another technical exchange and locks in a grounded armlock and begins working the left arm. There’s some outstanding psychology by Kobashi because he’s weakening Misawa’s stiff elbow arm. Misawa gets to his feet and hits his trademark ‘somersault flip escape’ and elbows his way out of that hold, and another strike exchange ends in a stalemate. Drop toehold by Kobashi followed by another grounded armlock to keep targeting Misawa’s arm. Kobashi keeps up the pressure on the same arm no matter what tricks Misawa tries. They keep reversing each other’s hammerlocks at the five-minute-mark.
Kobashi hits a modified Russian leg sweep for a two-count before applying a Surfboard lock targeting Misawa’s back. Each time Misawa tries to escape, Kobashi uses his power to maintain control. Kobashi begins with a double arm lock and keeps this locked in using that power, so Misawa uses his intellect to do a standing flip to escape the hold, to which Kobashi answers with a shoulder tackle that sends Misawa down.
Kobashi’s in full control as he chops Misawa in one corner and whips him into another. A delayed vertical suplex by Kobashi gets only a two-count and then strikes Misawa’s neck and back. Kobashi locks in a facelock until Misawa kicks his way out of it. Kobashi chops Misawa several times, but Misawa does his version of a Hulk Hogan power-up and no-sells those strikes. The crowd loves that. They both exchange stiff chops/elbows, and neither man backs down despite the onslaught. The audience loves the fighting spirit from both guys. Kobashi wins the exchange and hits several chops followed by two vicious rolling back shops that send Misawa down. Kobashi’s in full control as we reach the ten-minute mark.
Kobashi tenderizes Misawa’s torso in the corner with shoulder strikes and chops. After an Irish whip, Misawa tries to block a strike but Kobashi charges and maintains control. Kobashi hoists Misawa onto the top rope but Misawa elbows his way out of it twice and hits a diving shotgun dropkick. Misawa hits a spinkick that sends Kobashi out of the ring, Kobashi moves, so Misawa lands feet-first outside the ring, blocks a kick and hits a hard elbow that sends Kobashi down ringside.
Kobashi gets up and Misawa hits a baseball slide kick followed by a corkscrew plancha to keep him down. Misawa tosses Kobashi back into the ring and hits a diving somersault for a two-count. Diving spinning lariat by Misawa gets yet another two-count, so Misawa hits a big senton afterwards for another two-count. Misawa keeps a chinlock cinched in for a long time until Kobashi reaches the ropes. Now it’s Misawa’s turn to target Kobashi’s neck. Misawa hits multiple hard strikes followed by a modified standing Ace Crusher that gets another two-count at the fifteen-minute mark.
Misawa cinches a vicious facelock and transitions into a scissored armbar and holds it for a long time until Kobashi reaches the ropes. Kobashi tries to fight back but eats several HARD elbows from Misawa for his efforts. Kobashi blocks a vertical suplex and tries a running charge but eats a standing dropkick from Misawa that sends Kobashi out of the ring. Misawa runs and skins the cat and charges, but Kobashi dropkicks Misawa in the gut in midair as Misawa dives. Great move.
Kobashi gets up first and hits two guillotine leg drops on Misawa on the steel ring barricade and twice again against the ropes inside the ring. He then continues his onslaught with not one but TWO BACKDROP DRIVERS and Misawa lands right on his head on the second one! Sick landing! Kobashi pins but only gets 2.5. The crowd is cheering for both guys loudly as Kobashi applies a standing front facelock and then a sitting chinlock at the twenty-minute-mark.
Misawa tries to make a comeback with a hard elbow, so Kobashi shuts him down with a German suplex. Misawa gets up immediately (because he’s a beast) but walks into a sleeper hold from Kobashi. Misawa looks like he’s fading. The ref’s checking on him, raising his arm for a response. No, it’s not over yet. Kobashi wrenches the hold as much as he can but Misawa still has fight in him. Misawa hits a stunner of sorts to escape the sleeper hold so Kobashi answers by dropkicking Misawa in the back of the head and then chops the top of his head for a two-count. Kobashi lifts Misawa for a powerbomb but Misawa tries to reverse with a frankensteiner, but Kobashi sees this coming and hits a modified Boston crab on Misawa instead. Fantastic reversal. Kobashi has Misawa totally scouted.
Misawa desperately crawls to the bottom rope to break the hold. Kobashi starts with his brutal chop onslaught next, maintaining control of the match. We get a great sequence as Kobashi whips Misawa into a corner but Misawa elbows Kobashi to block his charge. Misawa tries a diving back elbow but Kobashi catches him in a half nelson hold and Misawa tries desperately to escape, so he charges forward and drives Kobashi head-first into the top turnbuckle. This is some excellent storytelling. Misawa starts elbowing and kicking Kobashi’s face off. ROLLING ELBOW BY MISAWA! Kobashi falls like a sack of bricks! Misawa can’t capitalize because he’s exhausted from Kobashi’s earlier offense. Kobashi rolls to the safety of the ropes at the 25-minute-mark.
Misawa hits another running elbow that sends Kobashi down to the ringside area. ELBOW SUICIDA BY MISAWA! Gorgeous move! Back in the ring, Misawa hits another diving elbow onto Kobashi and gets another two-count. Kobashi blocks a tiger driver but eats a German suplex for his efforts. Both he and Misawa are back up instantly and Kobashi attempts a running shoulder tackle, but Misawa elbows the shit out of Kobashi’s face instead. TIGER DRIVER BY MISAWA! The ref counts one…two…thr—NO, Kobashi kicks out at 2.75. The crowd is going crazy.
Tiger body press by Misawa gets another two-count. Misawa climbs the turnbuckle again and goes for another diving move but Kobashi counters into a Giant Baba neckbreaker. Great counter! Misawa charges the corner to attempts a monkey flip, but Kobashi counters by dropping Misawa face-first into the turnbuckle. Half-Nelson Suplex by Kobashi at the thirty-minute mark. My God, the twists and turns in this match are insane!
Kobashi hits a brutal bucklebomb on Misawa followed by a DDT and a dragon suplex. Kobashi has such great psychology by targeting Misawa’s neck. He goes for a pin, but Misawa kicks out at 2.5. Kobashi tries a vertical suplex but Misawa elbows his way out of it, but Kobashi counters a rolling elbow from Misawa with a lariat of his own. ORANGE CRUSH BOMB BY KOBASHI, but Misawa kicks out two. Damn, what a spectacular move!
Kobashi teases the dreaded Burning Hammer twice, but Misawa escapes both attempts, so Kobashi lariats him but Misawa kicks out at 2.5 twice in quick succession. Kobashi hits a DDT and a standing guillotine leg drop, followed by a diving leg drop that John Cena would use ten years later. He goes for the pin, but Misawa kicks out at 2.8 TWICE yet again. Kobashi goes for the burning lariat but Misawa elbows his lariat arm twice, yet Kobashi continues to strike away as if nothing happened. Kobashi goes for another bucklebomb but Misawa nails a frankensteiner reversal that sends Kobashi head-first into the turnbuckle. Another amazing counter. What a war this has been!
Misawa rolls out of the ring at the thirty-five-minute mark. Kobashi picks Misawa up and teases a Half-Nelson off the ring apron but Misawa blocks it with an elbow. Then, Misawa hits one of his most iconic moves: a tiger driver from the apron to the floor. Holy shit! That was crazy! What an insane move!
Both guys crawl back to the ring and collapse in the centre, barely able to move. They start an elbow/chop exchange that Misawa wins. Misawa hits senton leg drops to Kobashi’s neck as revenge from earlier. Misawa teases another tiger driver, but Kobashi’s holding on for dear life. But he can’t hold on anymore as Misawa hits the TIGER DRIVER 91! My God, what brutality. Kobashi got dropped on his head. Misawa crawls over, hooks the leg. The referee counts one…two…thr—NO! KOBASHI KICKED OUT! Just like in January 1997! The crowd explodes in Kobashi chants. Misawa charges but Kobashi hits a lariat out of nowhere. Both men are down at the forty-minute mark.
Kobashi’s on auto-pilot, inching his way closer to pin Misawa. Each time he moves slightly closer, he collapses from the pain and exhaustion. Fantastic selling. He finally reaches Misawa but Misawa kicks out of a pin at 2.5. Kobashi tries to mount a comeback with chops, but Misawa shuts him down with brutal elbows and another ROLLING ELBOW! Misawa pins Kobashi…but he kicks out at 2.9! What a close call. After a struggle, Misawa hits a bridging tiger suplex, but Kobashi kicks out of that as well. RUNNING ELBOW SMASH by Misawa! That’s how he won their fantastic match in January 1997. Misawa pins, but AGAIN Kobashi kicks out at 2.9. They charge each other once more! A stalemate. ONE-TWO ELBOW SMASH COMBO BY MISAWA! Kobashi staggers and falls to the mat. Put a fork in him, he’s done.
The referee counts one…two…three! That’s it! We have a new champion.
Winner and NEW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 43:22: Mitsuharu Misawa
If there’s one term I could use to describe this incredible match it would be ‘war of attrition’. For over forty minutes, Misawa and Kobashi brutalized each other with stiff strikes and high-intensity head-spiking moves, all of which was complemented by incredible psychology and careful storytelling. They demolished one another with vicious offense, and once the match was over, it looked both of them had been through Hell and back.
Though it had fewer callbacks to previous matches than their other encounters, they made up for that by putting on a wrestling equivalent of a gladiatorial fight to the death. Of course, that determination to win didn’t go unnoticed by the audience, who made plenty of noise and helped give this match an even bigger big fight atmosphere.
What was different in this match relative to their other encounters was that it featured a lesser emphasis on weakening an arm or leg (especially by Kobashi) and instead focused more on two wrestlers throwing bombs at each other. But these big moves weren’t done haphazardly; almost all of them targeted the neck do that later moves did more damage and had a greater chance of scoring a victory. Even without the typical arm weakening or prolonged submission sequences typical of King’s Road wrestling, Misawa and Kobashi still wrestled smartly in this match. Few wrestlers were or are capable of doing so while also telling a relatively new story.
One of my favorite parts of the match was when Kobashi had Misawa on his shoulders for the Burning Hammer. As soon as Misawa escaped, Kobashi had another finisher ready and drilled Misawa with a brutal lariat. While that didn’t end the match, it exemplified why AJPW’s King’s Road wrestling was so phenomenal. The matches showcased by AJPW stars – especially Misawa and Kobashi – were so rich and multi-layered that you never knew when or how a match would end, and each near-fall was as credible as the last.
Final Rating: *****
This match had everything you could want from a high-profile main event wrestling contest: excellent technical wrestling, logical transitions that made sense, off-the-wall ring psychology miles ahead of anything seen anywhere else in the world, and of course, so much fantastic counter-wrestling and many last-minute reversals.
Though it isn’t as good (in my opinion) as their other outings together, it is still deserving of a five-star honor. It feels like a classic fight between two warriors, and when it’s over you feel like you were taken on a journey with them. It’s exciting, dramatic, brutal and unpredictable, which makes it a must-watch contest for any wrestling enthusiast.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.