I have wanted to review this match for a while because it’s what I call a ‘template match’. You can swap out the two wrestlers involved in this match for anyone of your choosing and you’d be able to tell the same story. And the story here is how to create a proper inter-promotional invasion match.
On paper, this match had all the right moving parts: a strong and dominant champion, a credible and equally-dominant challenger from another company, and a rabid crowd desperate to see their hometown hero win. It looked like a great match in theory, but did it deliver in practice? There’s only one way to find out.
Today we look back at the world title match between NOAH’s Kenta Kobashi and New Japan’s Yuji Nagata from a big NOAH show in 2003.
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.
Kenta Kobashi was in the middle of his big reign as NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Champion. Since winning the title earlier in the year, he had beaten a bunch of different wrestlers: a midcarder that had no chance of winning but fought like hell anyway (Tamon Honda), an outsider that was past his prime but still a big star (Masahiro Chono) and a token big man that out-powered him (Bison Smith). Now, with his fourth defense, came a major challenger: NJPW’s Yuji Nagata.
Most people reading this might recognize that name because AEW hyped Nagata up as a big legend when he faced Jon Moxley not too long ago. Truth be told, Nagata was very much past his prime in his match with Moxley, and had been a much bigger star more than a decade earlier, during one of New Japan’s darkest period.
The best way to describe Nagata as a wrestler would be ‘Bret Hart but with kicks’. Nagata was an excellent technical wrestler and submission specialist that also loved to kick people very hard. His comparison with Bret Hart also came from how he was booked in New Japan. After some dreadful creative decisions that nearly ruined his career, Nagata had to carry New Japan on his back through the mud during the early 2000s. He suffered through Antonio Inoki’s terrible booking yet somehow clawed his way back to the top and became IWGP Heavyweight Champion. And during his one-year-plus-long reign, he had a record ten successful title defenses. That feat would stay in place until Hiroshi Tanahashi broke it in 2011.
After Nagata lost the world title, he joined a group of NJPW guys and went over to NOAH, with whom New Japan had a working relationship at the time. Nagata was the biggest threat Kobashi had to face thus far in his reign. He was a former world champion, accomplished amateur wrestler and brilliant in-ring tactician. These were problems for Kobashi because while he was a terrific in-ring worker in his own right, Nagata was better in terms of pure technique and grappling skill. It seemed like he had an answer for everything Kobashi would and could throw at him. Kobashi had his chops, Nagata had his kicks. Kobashi loved to spam Half-Nelson suplexes; Nagata did the same with Exploders. Kobashi had his ultimate weapon in the form of the Burning Hammer; Nagata had his never-broken ultimate submission hold in the Nagata Lock III (Rings of Saturn).
If there was ever someone that could possibly beat Kobashi for his world title, it was Nagata. But could he? Could Nagata bounce back from losing his own company’s world title and steal away a rival company’s top prize on one of that company’s own big shows?
This match originally took place on September 12th, 2003, in Bukodan Hall. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wresting Observer’s Dave Meltzer. More than fifteen years have passed since this match took place, so let’s see how it holds up.
The crowd boos Nagata as the bell rings to start the match. Nagata gets a clean break on the ropes and bitchslaps Kobashi in the face. The crowd boos very loudly as Kobashi gives him a death glare as if to say, ‘alright, you little shit, it’s on now.’
Nagata kicks Kobashi, but Kobashi no-sells it, drives Nagata into a corner and unloads with stiff chops. The crowd chants along as Kobashi tries to turn Nagata’s chest into hamburger meat. Kobashi whips Nagata and chops him again but Nagata tanks it and boots Kobashi down. Nagata bounces back up. The two of them puff up their chest and go nose-to-nose in a tense standoff.
They do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Kobashi gets the power advantage (because, Kobashi). Nagata counters it and gets to the ropes, so Kobashi chops him hard to break it up. Nagata lands some forearms but Kobashi out-powers him and lands a DELAYED vertical suplex for a two-count. Kobashi applies a facelock but Nagata grapples out into a standing armlock and again they do a test of strength. Nagata tries to out-wrestle Kobashi, but Kobashi’s just too strong for him and keeps him stuck in a deep headlock. This goes on for a bit until Nagata gets a clean break.
They lock up again and Nagata starts diving at Kobashi’s legs. They have a nice little technical exchange and then Nagata starts working Kobashi’s arm. Kobashi counters into a headscissor, which is a great way to start weakening Nagata for all his neck-targeting finishers. Nagata escapes the hold in another clean break.
Nagata decides no more games and starts kicking Kobashi really hard. He hits stiff kicks to Kobashi’s thigh and calf and Kobashi goes down but bounces right back up, defiant. Kobashi keeps tanking Nagata’s kicks so Nagata goes for forearms to the face. Big mistake. Kobashi answers with more brutal chops to the chest. Kobashi goes for a backdrop suplex. Nagata escapes and boots him down. Kobashi ends up on the apron. Nagata whips him into the ropes and lands a belly-to-belly on the apron. Brutal landing for Kobashi.
Back in the ring, Nagata gets a two-count and hits more forearms. That ends up being a poor choice because Kobashi fires back with stiff chops to the neck that down Nagata. Kobashi goes for some more chops in the corner, but Nagata tanks some to lure Kobashi in and then catches his arm. Kobashi goes for more chops. Nagata answers with kicks to that same arm and then with a seated armbar. He locks it in right in the middle of the ring. Kobashi rolls around and reaches the ropes with his foot, showing great ring awareness. But Nagata’s not done as he applies another armbar, this time ignoring the ropebreak altogether. The crowd boos loudly, and gets even louder when Nagata shoves the ref. But he doesn’t end the match there because those ref’s aren’t made of glass. Nagata stretches Kobashi’s arm in the corner but Kobashi uses his free left hand to hand some chops. He then hits a flurry of machine gun chops using the bad right hand (not sure why) but then backs off because of the pain in his arm. Nagata uses that momentary pause to land more stiff kicks to Kobashi’s right arm.
Nagata boots Kobashi over the ringside barricade and then drives him shoulder-first into the ringpost. In the ring, Nagata tries to destroy Kobashi’s arm with first a seated armbar, then an MMA-style cross armbreaker. Kobashi does his best to keep his arms locked together, but Nagata’s a better mat wrestler. He reaches the ropes again out of desperation, so Nagata lands more kicks and forearms.
Nagata goes to whip Kobashi into a corner but Kobashi counters with a chop and lands a Half-Nelson suplex out of nowhere. Nagata bounces right back up and connects with an Exploder suplex of his own. both men bounce back up. Nagata with a boot. He blocks a big rolling chop. Kobashi blocks an enzuigiri and lands a running neckbreaker. Both men go down. Great sequence.
Kobashi lands some running knee lifts and another chop, but his arm’s giving him more problems now. Nagata reverses an Irish whip, lands a corner boot, followed by an Exploder. Kobashi gets back up so Nagata drops him with knees to the face. Backdrop suplex by Nagata. Kobashi lands on his neck. Nagata pins but only gets two. Crossface by Nagata. He traps Kobashi’s good arm, forcing Kobashi to try and reach out with his bad one. Great strategy. Kobashi inches closer to the ropes. Nagata tries to apply his patented Nagata Lock III but doesn’t get it all the way in. The fans chant Kobashi’s name as he barely gets to the ropes with his foot.
Twenty minutes have passed as Nagata kicks the hell out of Kobashi’s chest. He goes for another Backdrop suplex, but Kobashi counters into a pin in midair for two. Nagata goes for another big boot. Kobashi dodges and lands another Half-Nelson. This time it’s Nagata that gets spiked. Both men get up slowly and Nagata tries to resist getting powerbombed. But he fails and Kobashi spikes him into the corner with a Bucklebomb. That’s followed by another half-nelson. Kobashi pins but only gets two. Yet another half-nelson and another kickout by Nagata. Kobashi tries again, Nagata fights out, and Kobashi rushes him into a corner. He followed with a sleeper suplex, dropping Nagata on his head once more. Kobashi pins, but Nagata reaches the ropes.
Kobashi signals the end and brings the crowd to their feet. He goes for a lariat but Nagata lands a big boot and a rolling kick to the head. Both men get up slowly. Nagata lands a corner kneelift and places Kobashi on the top turnbuckle. He attempts a wrist-clutch Exploder from the corner but Kobashi fights back. But Nagata still manages to land a (regular) avalanche Exploder. Nagata pins. One, two, th—no, Kobashi kicks out.
Both men are now kneeling in front of each other trading strikes. Kobashi desperately starts head-butting Nagata and lands chops to the neck. Nagata answers with one enzuigiri. Kobashi remains standing. A second enzuigiri. Kobashi starts staggering. A third enzuigiri. He’s still staggering. A fourth one. The crowd applauds loudly as Kobashi somehow remains on his feet. Enzuigiri #5. Kobashi staggers deeply, looking like he’s about to collapse. A sixth enzuigiri brings Kobashi down to one knee. Nagata capitalized with a bridging Backdrop suplex. One, two, NO, Kobashi kicks out at 2.9!
Nagata charges with a yakuza kick but Kobashi answers with a short-range lariat. Kobashi teases another lariat but Nagata lands a high kick for another extremely close two-count. Nagata irish whips Kobashi, Kobashi answers with another lariat. One, two, Nagata kicks out. Sheerdrop Brainbuster. Kobashi spikes Nagata right on his head once more. One, two, thr—Nagata somehow kicks out again. Kobashi signals the end for sure this time. BURNING LARIATO!! One, two, three! Kobashi keeps his title! The legendary reign continues.
Winner and STILL GHC Heavyweight Champion after 30:13: Kenta Kobashi
That was an awesome wrestling match. It was a battle between two equals that went thirty minutes and was exciting from bell to bell. There was never a dull moment. The action was great and it was complemented by an extremely rabid pro-Kobashi crowd. I think it has withstood the test of time, even if it does have a few minor flaws that prevent it from reaching that upper level of genuine historic greatness.
Despite being the local hero and much stronger, Kobashi was at a disadvantage from the very beginning. Nagata proved he was a superior grappler and a real danger with his submission holds. Thus, Kobashi had to answer with a strategy of his own: destroy his opponent’s neck. That worked wonders because so many of Kobashi’s moves – the bucklebomb, half-nelson and sleeper suplexes, the lariat, the Brainbuster, and the chops – all targeted the neck. He never faltered from that strategy and it brought him the win.
But it wasn’t easy getting there. Nagata came into this match with a strategy that made perfect sense: weaken Kobashi’s arm and try to get him into the Nagata Lock. After some early technical exchanges to establish how equal the two wrestlers were, Nagata went to work and tried to follow that strategy. He did, and for a while, it seemed to work. He even went outright heelish and refused to release an armbar on a ropebreak. Doing so did double duty of weakening Kobashi further and getting the crowd behind their champion even more.
The problem, though, was that Kobashi’s selling was a tad inconsistent. He ate a ton of kicks to his upper arm and shoulder, yet immediately went for his machine gun chops. Kobashi sold the arm, sure, but the way he kept using that bad arm as a weapon made him look like both an incredibly tough bastard and a bit of a doofus with a one-track mind that could only do one thing. And Nagata nearly had things won once he tried to apply the Nagata Lock III. No one had ever escaped or survived that hold, so Nagata going for it gave the match a great moment of raw tension. And the fact that Kobashi had to rely on his bad arm to try and reach the ropes only made a possible loss by submission all the more possible.
But once that strategy failed, there was pretty much nothing left for Nagata to do. He had no backup plan, so he tried trading bombs with Kobashi. This was a terrible decision because Kobashi rarely, if ever, loses in that sort of situation. Nagata tried everything, including spamming kicks to the head and backdrops just like Kobashi’s old rival Toshiaki Kawada did back in All Japan. But Kobashi ate those moves like they were nothing and demolished Nagata with one big move after another. Kobashi’s own strategy of focusing on Nagata’s neck came through in the end as he dropped him with head spike after head spike. In the end, it took two stiff lariats and a massive Brainbuster in between to keep Nagata down for the three-count.
On one hand, Kobashi did a great job making Nagata look like a tough sonofabitch by having to use multiple finishers to keep him down. On the other hand, Nagata was also made to look weak because none of his big moves seemed to have a lasting impact. Maybe that was to be expected; after all, this was an outsider wrestling on a NOAH show for NOAH’s title in front of NOAH’s fans. There’s always going to be a hint of politics at play in such a case. And yet, I think that Kobashi should’ve done more to make Nagata look good. Nagata should’ve focused on Kobashi’s arm a lot more and Kobashi should’ve sold his desperation more thoroughly (like he did against Takayama almost a year later). If Kobashi was unable to use his right arm reliably, it would’ve elevated Nagata as a credible threat, which in turn would’ve elevated the tension and unpredictability in this match as well.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This match was almost perfect. All the right elements were there for this to be a genuine, historic epic. Kobashi was hands down the best overall in-ring performer in the world at the time, yet he found himself in dangerous waters facing down New Japan’s ace. Nagata came in like a monster threat and almost went move-for-move against Kobashi in a way that few wrestlers could. Together, these two men delivered one hell of a dream match. Imagine if peak WCW Goldberg took on an in-his-prime Kurt Angle on a WCW show. That’s basically how this match came off, only longer and with this one being much closer than said Angle/Goldberg match ever would.
And yet, something was off about this match. It had plenty of tension, a good story, a rabid crowd that gave it a better atmosphere, and some terrific in-ring athleticism. Still, it seemed like the chemistry between Kobashi and Nagata was off. The match had some awkward moments and inconsistent selling that weakened Nagata’s aura as a dangerous and credible menace. He left the match looking tough for taking a ton of punishment, but also left it looking weak for being unable to succeed on offense.
But despite some flaws, I really think this match makes for a strong ‘template’ for any wrestling company looking to go down the same creative route. This match featured an imposing challenger that knew he was in enemy territory and took full advantage of it. It had a champion that followed a singular strategy that made the most out of the rabid crowd that supported him. And once it was over, both sides still look more or less as good as they did going into it. Everybody wins in that situation, especially the fans because they get to see a match-up that doesn’t come up very often.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.