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5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi – June 11, 1999, by Alex Podgorski

If there was ever a wrestling match that would be the perfect introduction to Japanese ‘puroresu’ it is this legendary battle.

Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi are gods among men, two wrestlers with mythical careers and legacies. Misawa was to Japan what Hulk Hogan was to the United States or Konnan to Mexico. And Kobashi was to Japan what Bret Hart was to Canada or what A.J. Styles has been to the wrestling world over the past twenty-plus years. Anytime they met in the ring, whether as partners or as opponents, you were virtually guaranteed to witness a wrestling classic.

This singles match is no exception. It’s the third in a series of legendary singles bouts that helped both men cement themselves as legends in pro wrestling. It was rated 5 stars in the Wrestling Observer and won the Match of the Year award in 1999. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here and the last one I posted was their classic match from October 1998.

This time, Misawa is the defending champion against challenger Kobashi. And as usual, the Budokan Hall crowd is loud as hell, cheering both guys equally.

The match

This match took place on June 11, 1999.

The bell rings and the crowd is very loud for this next encounter between these two legends. They lock up and Kobashi immediately locks in a cross armbreaker to weaken Misawa’s elbows. Misawa reaches the ropes and escapes the ring. He sells the armbar very well. Misawa returns to the ring and Kobashi cinches in a lengthy headlock. Misawa tries the back suplex to escape, but Kobashi rolls through to keep it locked in. Kobashi maintains the headlock for a long time, and even traps one arm to make it harder for Misawa to escape. Misawa reaches the ropes, so Kobashi answers with a standing front facelock to keep the pressure on Misawa’s head and neck. Again, great psychology early because so many of Kobashi’s biggest moves target the neck, and targeting the neck can also weaken the nerves, making striking with limbs harder.

Misawa reaches the ropes again and tries an elbow, but Kobashi has him scouted and chops his neck and returns to the headlock. Misawa escapes for one second before Kobashi chops the hell out of his neck and reapplies it again. Misawa with a quick pin that gets a one-count. Misawa launches Kobashi into the ropes, but Kobashi answers with a big shoulder tackle. A quick hold exchange occurs and we get a standoff in the middle of the ring as the crowd applauds. Misawa hits his own cross armbreaker and traps the head but Kobashi escapes right away.

They exchange standing hammerlocks for a while that transitions into some excellent technical wrestling that ends with Kobashi locking in a grounded armlock. Misawa gets to his feet and a power struggle ensues, but Kobashi maintains wrist control. So Misawa does his somersault escape and elbows Kobashi in the face. That is always a great move. Misawa blocks a rolling back chop from Kobashi, who in turn ducks a spin kick from Misawa, who then blocks a German suplex and locks in a double arm lock to weaken Kobashi’s arms. Excellent sequence there.

Kobashi tries to power through and pull his arms out of Misawa’s and after a lengthy struggle, succeeds and reverses the hold onto Misawa. Misawa tries to escape but Kobashi keeps the hold cinched in and attempts a backdrop suplex, but Misawa escapes and elbows Kobashi right in the face and hits a running elbow drop to regain control of the match at the ten-minute mark.

Misawa hits a standing dropkick that gets a two-count and then cinches in a side headlock. Kobashi gets to the corner and whips Misawa into another corner, but Misawa blocks that and sends Kobashi back down with another hard elbow. A gutwrench suplex by Misawa gets another two-count. Kobashi tries to fight back with chops that sound like gunshots, but Misawa elbows the crap out of Kobashi’s face and neck to shut him down. Misawa tries a running shoulder tackle but Kobashi absorbs it, and we get another stiff exchange between these two legendary strikers. Both Kobashi and Misawa strike each other HARD, but neither man so much as flinches. Kobashi wins the exchange with two brutal rolling back chops and a rolling kick to the gut that sends Misawa down as the fans cheer loudly. Kobashi hits high knees to Misawa’s got followed by a fireman’s carry gutbuster for a two-count and then applies a Boston Crab to apply more pressure on the gut he just attacked. Smart wrestling there. Misawa reaches the ropes and Kobashi punches Misawa in the gut in the corner followed by a gourdbuster that gets another two-count at the fifteen-minute mark.

Kobashi hits a knee to Misawa’s gut again, but Misawa dodges the second one and elbows Kobashi in the face. Misawa hits his diving spinning lariat followed by a standing senton and suddenly he has regained control. Misawa kicks Kobashi out of the ring and runs and skins the cat, but as he dives, Kobashi catches him in midair and hits a powerslam to the floor. Crazy move.

Kobashi’s in control as he tosses Misawa into the steel ring barricade and then teases a powerbomb on the apron, Misawa fight out, so Kobashi hits a shoulder armbreaker and then dives off the apron sending Misawa arm-first back into the steel ring barricade. That was great. Kobashi continues to destroy Misawa’s main elbowing arm outside the ring, and even smashes that arm over the steel chain that connects the rope to the ringpost. Talk about smart wrestling. Kobashi hits two standing kimura-lock-style DDT and locks in a brutal arm submission hold at the twenty-minute mark.

Kobashi keeps the hold locked in for a while until misawa reaches the ropes. More standing armbreakers from Kobashi, but Misawa answers with an elbow strike. Sadly for him, that elbow causes him to wince in pain, making a comeback impossible. Kobashi tries to capitalize with a Half-Nelson suplex, but Misawa holds on, so Kobashi takes advantage of Misawa’s position by rolling into another cross armbreaker submission hold. These guys are simply phenomenal.

Misawa desperately pushes himself around, inching his way closer to the ring ropes as Kobashi puts more and more pressure on the arm. The fans are going nuts. After what seems like an eternity, Misawa barely reaches the ropes with his foot. They both get up and Misawa starts a comeback with kicks (because his arms are useless). Misawa tries one kick too many because Kobashi blocks it and hits a German suplex out of nowhere. Misawa lands on his head but gets up right away (again, gods among men) and charges Kobashi, so Kobashi judo throws him, block another elbow, and drops him with a huge Half-Nelson suplex. But instead of pinning Misawa, Kobashi locks in a fujiwara armbar and the crowd is going nuts. Misawa’s foot reaches the rope again, and Kobashi gets up with blood pouring out of his nose from an earlier Misawa kick. He looked PISSED.

Kobashi tries another armbar but Misawa rolls through to escape and hits a desperation DDT out of nowhere. Kobashi tries to block Misawa’s next kick by grabbing his leg, so Misawa hits Kobashi with his free leg to send the challenger back down. Kobashi rolls out of the ring and the referee checks on him, which gives Misawa time to recover at the twenty-five-minute mark.

On the ropes, Kobashi chops Misawa’s damaged arm and teases a suplex over the rope. Both of them try the same move until Kobashi succeeds in getting Misawa over the rope. But Misawa lands on his feet, elbows Kobashi’s knee and hits a backdrop suplex from the apron to the floor. Wow, that was brutal. As Kobashi gets to his feet at ringside, Misawa runs out of nowhere and hits his ELBOW SUICIDA to the crowd’s delight. Misawa tosses Kobashi back into the ring and hits a diving shotgun dropkick followed by a tiger body press for a two-count. His arm is still giving him problems from earlier so he can’t recover right away. There’s some more excellent selling, as Misawa shows that you don’t have to only use facial expressions to tell a story.

Misawa teases the tiger driver but Kobashi powers out of the first one but can’t escape a second one. But after hitting that second one, Misawa can’t capitalize on it by pinning because his arm is still hurting him. Great selling once more. Misawa drags Kobashi to the apron and teases a tiger driver from the apron (in reference to their war from 1998) but Kobashi escapes at the thirty-minute mark.

Kobashi tries a half-nelson suplex on the ringside mats but Misawa escapes it, so Kobashi tries to toss him into the steel ring barricade again. Misawa blocks that too, and Kobashi predicts Misawa’s retaliatory charge, so he blocks Misawa with perfect timing and hits a successful Half-Nelson suplex at ringside. These guys know each other so well, and their chemistry is unmatchable.

Kobashi tries to suplex Misawa over the rope back into the ring but Misawa lands on his feet. A few standing switches happen hits a bridging German suplex for a 2.5-count. This crowd clearly loves both these guys. Kobashi hits a powerbomb and immediately tries another, but this time drops Misawa facefirst into the top rope, followed by an Orange Crush Bomb that gets a 2.75-count. Kobashi’s busting out all his big moves, including his perfect diving moonsault press, but that also gets a 2.75-count. Kobashi then tries a running lariat but Misawa ducks the first one, but not the second one as Kobashi nails Misawa in the back of the head. Kobashi sets Misawa up for the Burning Hammer but Misawa keeps fighting out of it, so Kobashi hits a lariat with Misawa on top rope (in reference to Kobashi’s brutal war with Stan Hansen, which you can read about here).

Kobashi goes for a pin but Misawa gets his foot on the rope. In desperation, Kobashi tries to toss Misawa back into the ring but Misawa’s completely spent outside. So instead, Kobashi teases a powerbomb into the steel ring barricade, but Misawa reverses it at the last second and frankensteiners Kobashi into the steel ringpost instead. HOLY SHIT!! What a great reversal!

We’re at the thirty-five-minute mark as both guys are down ringside. Kobashi gets up first back in the ring and hits a jumping knee to Misawa. He then tries the lariat but Misawa ducks and hits Kobashi with a German suplex of his own. But Kobashi is made of iron because he’s back up right away and lariats Misawa into the corner while hurting his own arm in the process. He wants to win so badly he’s becoming more reckless as the match progresses. This gives Misawa a critical opening as the crowd chants both guys’ names.

Misawa starts elbowing the lariat arm that just got hurt (because he knows what wrestling is) and attempts the tiger driver. Kobashi blocks that so Misawa hits a bridging tiger suplex instead, but that only gets a 2.5-count. Misawa hits a running elbow smash and both guys are down again. after a long struggle, Misawa hits the Tiger Driver ’91, dropping Kobashi right on his neck. Damn, that was, is, and always will be one of the sickest moves in wrestling history. Misawa goes for a pin, but somehow Kobashi kicks out at 2.9999. HOW?! How does Kobashi keep doing that?! I get kicking out of it twice, but three times? The guy’s neck must be made of adamantium or something. The ref’s hand was less than an inch from the canvas! What an incredibly close call.

We’re at the forty-minute mark as Misawa’s in control. He tries a rolling elbow smash but Kobashi ducks it and hits a sleeper suplex out of nowhere. Now it’s Misawa’s turn to get dropped on his head. Both guys get up slowly and Kobashi hits another running lariat, but Misawa gets up at 2.9. Another great near-fall.

They both get up and Kobashi keeps trying to cleave Misawa’s head off with another lariat. Misawa blocks the first two with an elbow, but Kobashi’s like a runaway freight train: refusing to go down and can only be slowed down for a brief moment. He tries a third lariat but Misawa blocks it and hits hit rolling elbow and Kobashi goes down like a tree being felled. Misawa hits a rolling senton from the second rope, followed by e bridging tiger suplex ’85 that gets another 2.9-count. These near-falls are crazy. Kobashi tries a desperation chop flurry, but Misawa elbows the shit out of his face with both arms, and then drills Kobashi with the EMERALD FLOWSION!!!

The referee counts one…two…THREE! That’s it! The match is over.

Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 43:40: Mitsuharu Misawa

Review

These two wrestlers simply cannot have anything less than an outstanding match together. Anytime you see the names ‘Misawa’ and ‘Kobashi’ together, you KNOW you’re in for something spectacular, and this was no exception.

This match was better than their fantastic encounter in 1998 (which is like saying the match between John Cena and A.J. Styles at the 2017 Royal Rumble was better than their equally-great match at SummerSlam 2016). This match had a much better sense of story and drama centered on Kobashi trying to destroy Misawa’s arm. That was a central theme in the match (just like in their 1997 encounter) but it had a much bigger impact on the finish, as Misawa couldn’t win with his elbows while he had done so in both previous encounters.

It’s also a perfect example of why I love these AJPW matches so much: there were callbacks and references to previous matches Misawa and Kobashi fought in (Kobashi kicking out of the Tiger Driver ’91, targeting the arm, the one-two stiff elbow smash combo, just to name a few) which made the match feel more exciting. It even one spot that called back to a Kobashi-Hansen match that helped elevate Kobashi to the main-event level. In watching these matches, not only are they fantastic in a vacuum, but you also appreciate them more when you watch them as part of a larger narrative.

Each match is another chapter in a lengthy, well-crafted, extensive story, with twists and turns in each chapter. The central theme was Kobashi wanting to beat Misawa and become company ace, but Misawa was simply too much for him to overcome. And just when Kobashi thinks he has an answer for Misawa’s legendary elbows, Misawa has another trick up his sleeve in the form of his new, never-before-kicked-out-of finisher.

One issue that seems to plague AJPW matches is that over time they start to get formulaic and you start thinking, ‘I’ve seen that before’. But instead of that repetition turning into boredom, it adds more depth to the story Misawa and Kobashi tell. Yes, both Misawa and Kobashi have particular signature moves they always attempt in their matches, so if you watch one of their matches you’ll feel like you’ve seen them all. But that’s where their psychology really shines. These two wrestlers are masters at crafting unpredictable twists and turns in their matches that make each one feel unique in some way while also calling back to previous encounters.

Just look at the opening here: Kobashi immediately attacked the arm to establish the advantage and to weaken Misawa’s elbows because he had lost to those elbows in previous matches. This time, that grand narrative paid off because Misawa couldn’t finish Kobashi off with his trademark elbow strikes as he had done in the past. Instead, he had to bust out his new big finisher, the Emerald Flowsion, to put the tough-as-nails Kobashi down for the three-count.

Throughout this match, there were teases, reversals, chain-wrestling segments, counters, and dramatic moments that built up the drama to an insane level. Everything had a purpose and the big moves they did hit were done for a reason: to follow the established psychology of targeting one body part or another.

Another thing this epic match shows is the importance of changing over time, especially when it comes to finishers. This is something I feel is sorely lacking in today’s wrestling. Most wrestlers will use one move – MAYBE two – to end a match. Over time, a wrestler ends their matches with the same sequence and it gets boring. Even from a storytelling perspective, wrestler A would always use the same move to end the match, and wrestlers don’t try and come up with an escape for it or learn to avoid it or build their matches around avoiding those match-ending moves.

Kobashi and Misawa do the opposite. Each one of them has a wide variety of credible match-ending finishers. Misawa has the discus elbow smash, the running elbow smash, the tiger suplex, the tiger suplex ’85, the tiger driver, the tiger driver ’91, and later, the Emerald Flowsion. Kobashi has the running lariat, the standing (Burning) short range lariat, the Orange Crush Bomb, the moonsault, the Half-Nelson Suplex (more of a signature move to weaken opponents than to finish them off, but important all the same), and later, the Sheerdrop Brainbuster and the Burning Hammer. Each one of these moves could end a match, so both wrestlers have to be constantly on guard. That unpredictability makes their matches so exciting and fun to watch: you never know how their match will end, and when they do hit a big move, it’s believable as a match-ender because it has ended matches before. This is why these matches are like rollercoaster rides: even when you can see something coming, it still feels exhilarating.

Final Rating *****

This is an easy five-star match. It was phenomenal, exciting, dramatic, spellbinding, you get the picture. Misawa and Kobashi put on a master class in professional wrestling once again. They more than earned the distinction of not only putting on a perfect match, but also putting on THE best match of 1999. Nothing else comes close. I give this the absolute highest recommendation possible. You can watch this match without knowing the backstory I presented beforehand, without understanding Japanese, or without even listening to the crowd noise. This match gains its merits on the action alone. Very few matches have that quality to them, which makes this match something truly special.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.