Today we’re looking back at another case of an old match that can be used today to make things better. In this case, we’re revisiting a match that helped take an underneath fall guy and turn him into a top star. It’s one of many big matches in the career of Japanese wrestling legend Kenta Kobashi. Many people have called him ‘the perfect wrestler’ and his career boasts plenty of proof to back up that statement. But he wasn’t a big star from the beginning. His rise to the top was a long and arduous journey filled with challenges, losses and incredible struggles. And now we’re looking back at one of his first major trials. It’s his tag team match alongside Giant Baba against Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada from November 27th, 1992.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-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.
Every year starting in late November and finishing in mid-December, AJPW hosts its World’s Strongest Tag Determination League. And in the 1992 WSTDL, company promoter Giant Baba had a special project he was working on: Kenta Kobashi. Kobashi had been wrestling for only four years at that point, but he had already made a huge impact. Earlier in the year, he and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi teamed together and won AJPW’s secondary tag titles in what is widely considered to be one of the greatest tag team matches ever. But Kobashi was still seen as an underneath guy because of where he was in the pecking order. Kobashi was part of Misawa’s Super Generation Army, which also included guys like Kikuchi and Toshiaki Kawada. If Kobashi teamed with both Misawa and Kawada, odds were that Kobashi would be the fall guy if his team were booked to lose.
Determined to elevate Kobashi to another level, Baba decided to change things up. And the best way to do that was for Kobashi to team with Baba himself in this prestigious tournament.
There was no better way for Kobashi to get a positive rub than by teaming with Giant Baba himself. By teaming with him, Baba sent a clear message to the fans: Baba trusted Kobashi’s wrestling talent enough to work with him. Plus, the fans would cheer such a team no matter what. Despite being very old and incredibly limited by his own body, Baba was simply adored by the AJPW fans. He could have the worst stinker of a match and his fans would never turn on him.
So for Kobashi, this match was quite possibly the biggest test of his entire career. Here he was teaming with the company’s owner and promoter who was beloved yet way past his prime. As such, Kobashi basically had to the work of two wrestlers. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, his opponents were Misawa and Kawada, the #1 and #2 babyfaces in the company, respectively. Both of them had much more experience and skill than Kobashi and hardly ever got pinned, especially by someone on Kobashi’s level. Thus, Kobashi had to prove to everyone that he wasn’t just a fall guy.
This match originally took place on November 27th, 1992. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. After almost thirty years, let’s see how well this match holds up.
Kawada and Baba start things off. Yes, you read that right. Giant Baba is starting the match. Kawada gets a clean break on the ropes and lands a big chop that Baba tries his best to sell. But it’s hard because he always looks like he’s grinning. Baba knocks Kawada down on a shoulder block and ‘runs’ to the ropes but Kawada knocks him down with a lariat which gets a one-count. Baba counters an Irish whip and lands some knee lifts, followed by a deep abdominal stretch. Kawada somehow manages to hiptoss GIANT Baba off and lands a nasty soccer kick to Baba’s back before tagging Misawa. Misawa lands some early elbows but ht too gets knocked down by Baba. Baba does some grounded grappling. They trade quick pins and standing strikes until Misawa escapes a headlock with a Backdrop suplex. Baba tags Kobashi and the crowd immediately starts cheering for him. Misawa elbows Kobashi into a corner. Kobashi fires back with chops and a suplex that get a one-count. Kobashi applies the double-arm submission hold and blocks Misawa’s counters until Misawa escapes via drop toehold.
Kawada tags in and Kobashi headlocks him and applies it as tightly as he can. Kobashi keeps it locked in for a long time despite Kawada’s many escape attempts, until Kawada fights out with a Backdrop. They both attempt to suplex each other but Kobashi out-powers Kawada and connects for another one-count. Baba tags in and lands some sluggish-looking strikes and a swinging neckbreaker for two. Baba starts working Kawada’s left arm but Kawada escapes and lands stiff kicks. Kawada follows with a vertical suplex on the massive Baba, which gets a huge reaction from the crowd. Baba answers by tagging Kobashi, who slams Kawada and lands a bug ruining leg drop for another two-count. he and Kawada trade stiff strikes until Kawada downs him with a kick and then tags Misawa.
Misawa lands a running crossbody for two and sends Kobashi into a corner. Kobashi kicks out and lands a springboard bulldog and pins but Misawa gets a ropebreak. Kobashi applies a deep headlock and tags Baba. Baba grapples into a Russian leg sweep for a two-count but then eats a flurry of elbows. Kawada tags in and kicks at Baba’s calves. Kobashi tags in and he and Baba team up on Kawada with chops. He whips Kawada into Baba’s boot and lands a rolling cradle for two. Kobashi goes for an Irish whip but Kawada counters with a sick spinkick/leg lariat. Man, that move is always awesome.
Misawa tags in and kicks Kobashi but Kobashi catches his leg and applies a single leg crab. He works over that leg for a while until Baba tags in. Baba applies a sort of toehold as Kobashi drops his leg across Misawa’s neck. Kobashi tags back in and lands chops and kicks as Misawa fires back with elbows. He sends Misawa into a corner but Misawa blocks and lands a sudden rebound elbow. Kobashi goes down like a tree as Kawada tags in.
Kawada lands a spinning wheel kick for two and starts hitting wrist control chops. But on the third one, Kobashi ducks and lands a huge Backdrop driver. Kobashi crawls over for a pin. Kawada kicks out at two. Baba tags in and lands a big chop and a piledriver for two. Kawada pushes Baba into his corner and in comes Misawa. He goes for the same corner rebound elbow that downed Kobashi but Baba hits first with a throat chop. Baba lands a kneelift and a DDT but Misawa kicks out at two. Baba whips Misawa but Misawa dodges his attacks and lands two big running elbows. Misawa applies his facelock submission hold. Kawada rushes to the ropes to keep Kobashi at bay. Baba gets his foot on the ropes so Misawa tags Kawada. Another running lariat gets Kawada a two-count. Kawada hits his boss as hard as he can with chops and kicks, but Baba drops him with a big boot. Baba follows with his running neckbreaker finisher. One, two, no, Misawa makes the save.
Kobashi tags in and lands a missile dropkick for two. He and Kawada counter each other and hit tons of hard strikes until Kawada drops him with a lariat that also gets two. A second-rope elbow drop gets? Kawada another two-count. He goes for his Stretch Plum submission hold. Kobashi rushes to the ropes for safety. He tries again and locks it in fully. Misawa rushes Baba to stop him from interfering and applies his own facelock. The fans go absolutely nuts cheering for Kobashi and Baba. Kobashi struggles but makes it to the ropes.
Kawada goes for a back suplex but Kobashi tosses him off. He attempts a dragon suplex but Kobashi lands an enzuigiri instead. Bridging German suplex by Kobashi. Kawada kicks out. Kobashi lands a corner knee strike, a DDT, and then a scoop slam. Then he goes to the top rope and kicks Misawa right in the face. Diving moonsault connects. One, two, thr—no, Misawa saves Kawada again. Baba tosses Misawa out of the ring and Kobashi tosses Kawada into Baba, who lands a big chop. Kobashi lands a backbreaker and pins but Kawada kicks out again. Pumphandle Powerbomb by Kobashi. Kawada kicks out once more. Kobashi follows with a powerslam. Kawada kicks out. Kobashi charges, but Kawada answers with a gamengiri kick. Kawada pins but Kobashi kicks out.
Kawada lands a big boot and goes for a suplex but Kobashi overpowers him. Kawada lands behind him and goes for a rear naked choke. Kobashi fights out but Kawada hits him right in the back of the head with a sickening lariat. One, two, thr—no, Kobashi survives. Kawada lands his Folding Powerbomb. One, two, thr-no, Kobashi kicks out yet again. Kawada tries again. Baba helps Kobashi reverse the momentum into a pin. Kawada kicks out as Misawa attacks Baba. Misawa drops Kobashi with a Tiger Driver and Kawada pins. But Kobashi still kicks out. The crowd chants for Kobashi as Kawada lands stepkicks. Followed by another Folding Powerbomb. One, two, three! There’s the match!
Winners after 27:02: Mitsuharu Misawa & Toshiaki Kawada
That was an interesting match, so say the least. It featured three excellent wrestlers and one average wrestler that happened to be loved by everyone. And while the crowd was undeniable loud and loved every minute of this match, I don’t see the classic status that it was given when it first took place.
It was a largely by-the-numbers match with a fairly simple story. Misawa and Kawada were a well-oiled machine teaming together, Kobashi did his best to stand out on his own and carry his team, and Baba was Baba. The story was that Kobashi did his best to showcase what he can do against both Misawa and Kawada but it wasn’t enough. Those two were just too much for him. But that was to be expected. Few people actually expected their team to win. Kobashi was still inexperienced and Baba was long past his prime. As such, the match was structured on making Kobashi look good with Baba having a few moments of control to pop the crowd. And in the end, the match succeeded in its goal.
Kobashi looked great for a guy that rarely stepped out of Misawa’s and Kawada’s shadows. He showed great tag team logic when he supported Baba from the corner and landed tandem offense with him. He held his own against Kawada for a bit and survived Misawa’s lethal elbows. And while he did take the fall in the end, he went down swinging. He fought hard against Kawada to the point that he came surprisingly close with a few near-falls. And Kawada had a much harder time dealing with Kobashi than he might’ve expected. It took a lot more to keep Kobashi down long enough, and Kobashi came across as incredibly valiant in his heroic struggle to survive. It was logical booking 101. The current top duo got an important win and the guy they’re pushing for the future took the fall while looking strong in the process. In the larger narrative, this made perfect sense.
But as logically sound as it was, it just wasn’t a very captivating match. Sure, the crowd was white hot, but that too was par for the course at the time. The crowd always cheered Baba because he was such a legend, but he really brought this match down. Baba looked all kinds of silly ‘running’ the ropes and doing technical wrestling. It has been said before that his offense looks like it couldn’t break an egg and that was the case here. He really didn’t come across as threatening or convincing in what he did, even with the crowd popping loudly for his signature spots. In fact, I’m sure Kawada did more damage to himself lifting Baba up for a suplex than anything Baba did to him. And Baba’s control of the match took up more time than it needed. His interactions with both Misawa and Kawada were nowhere near as intense or exciting as their interactions with Kobashi. He just came across as so out of place here and it hurt the match in a big way.
I think the match would’ve been much better if Baba were to play the role of slowed down damage sponge Kobashi were to defend his team’s pride and honor. Kobashi had great chemistry with both Misawa and Kawada but more so Kawada. If Baba were to be assaulted by Kawada and Misawa, only for Kobashi to come in and make the big save but still lose in the end due to inexperience, then this would’ve been so much better.
Final Rating: ****
For a match involving three of the Four Pillars of Heaven, this match hasn’t really aged well. Despite some great chemistry and a solid story, the match is hamstrung by the involvement of the odd man out, Giant Baba. As great as he was in his prime and as tremendous a booker as he was, he really brought this match down a peg. He was mostly there for a nostalgia pop and because his loyal fans adored him. But he was so out of place in this match it was jarring. Misawa, Kawada and Kobashi had their wrestling style that was exciting, unpredictable, layered and brutal, while Baba was slow and methodical and hit a handful of big moves expecting those to carry the same weight as everything done by those around him.
All in all this is a fun match but nothing special. The only novelty here is in seeing Baba try his best to be as mobile as the other three wrestlers in this match. He tries really hard and while nothing goes outwardly wrong, it’s pretty obvious who the odd man out is in this match.
Thanks for reading.