Happy Wednesday Everyone!
More from the near nine hour YouTube video compilation of Kenta Kobashi’s epic GHC Heavyweight Title run from 2003-05.
This week we’ve got Kobashi wrestling Jun Akiyama, Akira Taue and Akitoshi Saito.
10th July 2004 – Departure – Tokyo Dome
GHC Heavyweight Title
Champ: Kenta Kobashi Vs Jun Akiyama
Akiyama was a former GHC Heavyweight Champ, defeating Mitsuharu Misawa to win the belt, but he lost the Title to Yoshinari Ogawa in a freak upset and surprisingly never got a chance to win it back as NOAH decided to give Yoshihiro Takayama a quick run with the belt instead in order to capitalise on the notoriety he gained from his big PRIDE fight with Don Frye. Since that Title run Akiyama had remained a strong part of the NOAH card, with this match at NOAH’s first ever Tokyo Dome show representing his first crack at the belt since losing it to Ogawa all the way back in 2002.
There is added backstory to this one as Akiyama’s first ever pro match was against Kobashi, with Kobashi picking up the win. The two would go on team together and then wrestle against each other many other times, with a notable bout being for All Japan’s Triple Crown in 1998 where Kobashi made Akiyama look like a real contender before managing to eke out a victory. There was a feeling amongst some at the time going into this one was that Akiyama should probably win seeing as winning the belt on such a big show would be a career defining moment for him and Kobashi was starting to run out of believable challengers. However, there was also a counter argument that Kobashi was still a big draw and he might still have some more juice left in him. Plus Akiyama had been Champion previously and didn’t really need the big win here, especially as defeating the long reigning Kobashi would be a good opportunity to get someone new over who hadn’t worn the belt before.
There have been some darn great Main Events at the Tokyo Dome and this match proudly takes its place amongst the pantheon of classic bouts throughout the years, as both men are “on” here and work a hard-hitting believable match filled with drama and big moves. The crowd is invested from the opening bell, with the match being pretty even in the early going. Kobashi does control things for a little bit with chops and face locks, with Akiyama selling it all well and the crowd reacting well to Kobashi’s trademark chops. Being that it’s summer in Tokyo, both men are quickly drenched in perspiration and the sweat goes flying when they clobber one another. Akiyama finally manages to get control of things himself for a bit by catching Kobashi with a knee strike before following up with a DDT onto the apron. The knee in particular looked great as Akiyama caught Kobashi out of mid-air when Kobashi was going for a Road Warrior like flying shoulder tackle.
Akiyama adds a knee drop to the back of Kobashi’s head whilst he lies on the apron to really punish The Champ, which gives us a count out tease before Kobashi manages to drag himself back into the ring. Kobashi’s selling is excellent as always, with Akiyama doing a great job working him over with holds and elbows, the target being Kobashi’s neck after the big moves on the apron. Akiyama works a Guillotine more than once, with Kobashi teasing going out each time and the crowd genuinely getting worried at points that Kobashi isn’t going to be able to hold on. Akiyama’s work really is great, as every move he does is measured and there is some real intensity to it, which is only helped by Kobashi’s top notch sell job.
Kobashi tenaciously holds on to a side headlock in order to get himself back into the match, with Akiyama continuously trying to suplex his way out of it only for Kobashi to refuse to release it. Kobashi ends up turning the headlock into a Sleeper Suplex when it looks like Akiyama will escape, leading to Kobashi delivering ALL THE CHOPS in the corner. The look of almost joy on Kobashi’s face when he throws those chops is a highlight of any bout. Akiyama sells them perfectly as well, eventually collapsing when Kobashi decides that he’s finally delivered enough torment for one outing. We get a positively nuts spot following that, as Kobashi gives Akiyama a vertical suplex off the apron to the floor, which didn’t look fun for either of them to take, especially when Akiyama BOUNCED like a crash test dummy after hitting the ground!
Kobashi busts out the Orange Crush (a suplex into a sit out bomb) for the first time in a while back inside the ring, with it only getting him a two. Kobashi has about 6 finishing moves but that was, I believe, his original one. It was either that or a guillotine leg drop I think. Kobashi decides its Burning Hammer time seeing as Akiyama survived the Crush, but Akiyama slips out and delivers a knee strike in order to stave off certain defeat. We head out to the apron again, where both men fight over suplexes. Akiyama ultimately gets the better of that duel by giving Kobash an Exploder Suplex off the second rope all the way down to the floor, which did not look fun. Kobashi actually took the perfect bump there, landing flat on his back with no real risk to his head, neck or tailbone, but it still didn’t look like an enjoyable fall to take, especially with all of Kobashi’s body already been worn down by years of punishment.
We get the big count out tease following that of course, with Kobashi only just making it back in at 19, but he looks the worse for wear with his Title possibly slipping away. Akiyama follows up with another Exploder back inside, but Kobashi is able to kick out at two, leaving Akiyama almost perplexed that this stubborn ox won’t stay down. Akiyama gets ANOTHER Exploder, this time from the top, but Kobashi kicks out AGAIN and the crowd is utterly losing it now and chanting even more for Kobashi to rally and fight back. Akiyama tries the Guillotine again and it looks like Kobashi’s goose is cooked whilst the fans desperately chant for him. Akiyama lets go of the hold (not unlike SANADA with Skull End) before the ref can stop it and instead pulls Kobashi to his feet for the Wrist Clutch Exploder, only for Kobashi to somehow kick out of THAT as well.
The pop for that kick out was on par with Undertaker kicking out of the Tombstone at Mania 27. The crowd was buying that the match was DONE and Kobashi kicking out popped them big. Kobashi manages to catch Akiyama with a desperation Brain Buster, which leads to both men suplexing each other and popping back up before we eventually get the double down. I know some really don’t like that spot as they think it’s unrealistic, but I’m always drawn back to something Dave Meltzer said a while back. They really are suplexing one another and they really are able to get back up from it, so it kind of is realistic on account of it being real. You aren’t faking getting suplexed on your head or getting thrown to the mat at high velocity. You might be able to break your fall a bit, but you’re still getting thrown around, which isn’t a picnic.
Akiyama gets to kick out of some finishers as well, including a Lariat and the Moonsault. Seeing both guys kick out of spots that would normally be match-enders not only makes them look tough but it also gives this match a special feel to it. Kobashi has a MDK move in his arsenal though, which just happens to be the Burning Hammer, and when he finally busts that out not even Akiyama is kicking out of it. The fact it took Kobashi having to bust that one out to win though does a great job of making Akiyama look like a bad ass. It’s basically Goku busting out the Spirit Bomb against the main bad guy of the series.
WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION: KENTA KOBASHI
The scary thing about this match was that, as amazing as it was, you could make a genuine argument that it wasn’t even the best match of 2004 when you take into account some of the stuff Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit were delivering in WWE, not to mention CM Punk and Samoa Joe’s unbelievable battles in ROH. 2004 was a STACKED year when it came to match quality across the board! This match was fantastic, with great wrestling; an invested crowd and the Dome setting just making everything feel that much more epic. Truly one of the best matches in NOAH history and I think Akiyama gained a lot from it even in defeat, as Kobashi was forced to break out the heavy artillery in order to win as Gorilla Monsoon would say
Kobashi is congratulated by his faction following that whilst a young Go Shiozaki helps him out with an icepack. Kobashi sends everyone away though so that he can shake Akiyama’s hand, which gets the crowd to applaud and chant for Akiyama.
10th September 2004 – Navigation Over The date Line – Nippon Budokan
GHC Heavyweight Title
Champ: Kenta Kobashi Vs Akira Taue
Taue and Kobashi had done battle together many times dating back to their days in All Japan Pro Wrestling, with Kobashi defeating Taue to win his first Triple Crown in 1996. Taue was seen as being past it as a high level performer by the time this one was booked, with most of the pre-match interest being focused more on whether Kobashi could get a good match out of Taue as opposed to whether Taue could actually win the belt or not.
Taue quickly gets the crowd onside by sending Kobashi to the floor with an enziguri and then following with a TOPE SUICIDA. I don’t know if standards were just generally higher back in the day or if Taue just always had some residual resentment from some followers of the Japanese scene due to him being the “worst” of the All Japan Five and thus reviewers were harsher on him as a result, but I’ve always liked him and I think he’d easily hold his own from a work rate perspective in either modern day WWE or AEW were he still in his prime. Kobashi sets the clock back a bit as well here and even dives out onto Taue with a plancha at one stage, as they’re having a fun battle thus far in the early stages.
Kobashi actually busts out the old knees to gut followed by Russian Leg Sweep sequence at one stage, which viewers of Attitude Era WWF will remember due to Val Venis shamelessly lifting it for his own arsenal. Heck, if you ever played WrestleMania 2000 on the N64 then pretty much Venis’ entire move set is an homage to the big stars of 90’s All Japan. After the hot start they settle into a more deliberate pace, with Kobashi trying to wear his challenger down with holds and both men occasionally getting into a strike exchange. Taue keeps finding himself trapped in an abdominal stretch (although I’m sure Gorilla Monsoon would complain that it wasn’t applied properly) and keeps trying to get out of it until finally doing so following a side kick and Dragon Screw.
I like how they didn’t just go straight to a counter and Taue had to work to get out of the hold after failing multiple times. It really helps make the match feel like an actual contest and struggle between two guys who are trying to out wrestle one another rather than just two guys playing out a pre-planned sequence of moves. Taue stays on the knee of Kobashi following the Dragon Screw, getting in leg kicks and knee crushers, as well as an assortment of different leg based submission holds. Taue even locks in Masa Saito’s trademark leg based submission hold at one stage, which Kobashi sells big and the crowd reacts to when they see it. I like how the two experienced guys are busting out classic moves like that, it really adds to the feeling of this being two veterans deploying their years of experience against a worthy foe.
We head out onto the ramp at one stage (which goes right up to the apron in this particular Budokan set up), where Taue gives Kobashi a Choke Slam out there before putting him back into the ring for a running big boot and release German Suplex. Taue adds another German Suplex following that, with Kobashi landing on his head in a gruesome looking bump. Taue isn’t done either, as he tries to Choke Slam Kobashi off the apron. Kobashi fights it for all he’s worth, but Taue is insistent that The Champ is going off the apron and that eventually happens following a back suplex into a Choke Slam all the way down to the floor. Taue took care of Kobashi as best he could on the landing, but it still didn’t look great to take. I’m constantly amazed at the sort of punishment Kobashi would take at this stage in his career. It’s a combination of admirable dedication and downright madness on his part.
We get a knock out tease following that back inside the ring, but Taue doesn’t want to win that way and drags Kobashi up to his feet in preparation for the Dynamic Bomb (Batista Bomb) which he gets for two in a good near fall. Fans were buying that as a potential Title switch following the big moves outside the ring. Kobashi manages to deliver a desperation Choke Slam of his own to finally halt Taue’s momentum. Kobashi misses a Moonsault though and that leads to a series of slams from Taue for another near fall. Taue even busts out a rana at one stage to counter a Kobashi powerbomb, as he’s clearly throwing everything at this to have the best match ever, and that leads into a Brain Buster from Taue for the best near fall of the bout so far.
The crowd reaction to that kick out was great, as they’ve got the fans buzzing over a potential Title change now and Taue is really bringing it. In a lot of ways this match has been a Taue showcase with Kobashi almost playing second fiddle, with the story being that Taue is wrestling the match of his life and it might mean the upset is on the cards. Taue is actually extremely effective in that particular role, which is kind of surprising as you wouldn’t think a guy his size could be such a good underdog, but his selling and general demeanour really makes it work. I think he has a sort of clumsy bungling charm that endears him to people. Kind of like Tadao Yasuda, except Taue was actually pretty darn good during his peak years whilst Yasuda was always all gimmick and little substance.
Taue is unable to put Kobashi away however, which leads into the final stages of the match where Kobashi shakes off the cobwebs and turns up the volume, with the idea being that Taue had his window but now it’s closing and normal service is resuming. Kobashi starts making his comeback in earnest with some big moves, leading to Taue kicking out and actually getting some chants from the crowd as a result. Taue pulls out an inside cradle at one stage in his last gasp attempt to wrest the belt from Kobashi, but Kobashi survives that and begins to gradually wear Taue down with bigger and bigger moves until the Burning Hammer takes us home
WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION: KENTA KOBASHI
Your own personal mileage may vary depending on how much you like Akira Taue. I generally enjoy his work and I thought he put in a really good effort here, which combined with the story being told made this an enjoyable match that I really got into. This was more Taue’s match than Kobashi’s, although Kobashi took his fair share of big bumps in order to get the match over. The crowd being so behind Taue near the end was a good barometer that the story they were telling worked, as he was very effective in his role of being the aging past his peak veteran who still had one last classic in him against the dominant reigning Champ. You could put this version of Taue in there with an Okada or Ibushi type today and this match would still work. Taue busting out the rana really was awesome and they had the crowd from that point onwards. I can definitely see my rating being higher on the scale than a lot of others, but fun is fun and this was certainly fun for me so I was generous with the rating
Kobashi shows respect to Taue following the bout like he did following the match with Akiyama at the Dome and the crowd appreciate it once again.
24th October 2004 – Navigation Against The Current – Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium
GHC Heavyweight Title
Champ: Kenta Kobashi Vs Akitoshi Saito
Saito actually got his start in FMW before working for W*ING, New Japan and WAR. He came into NOAH in 2000 where he was associated with Jun Akiyama’s STERNESS faction but mostly led his own sub-faction called Dark Agents with Masao Inoue, Takashi Sugiura and Kishin Kawabata. Saito and Inoue would often compete in the tag ranks as a regular team, with Saito having a hefty stocky frame and a neo punk styled hairdo.
One of Saito’s big moves is a Back Drop Driver, which he uses early on to send Kobashi out to the floor following a stalemate in the initial strike exchange. Kobashi takes some time to recover from that, leading to a test of strength once he is finally able to get back in. They’ve established how powerful the move is if they want to unleash later on the business end of the bout though, which is smart storytelling.
Kobashi goes to his usual MO of selling a lot for his challenger in order to make the challenger seem like a viable opponent, which is crucial when the challenger isn’t seen as a major star. Saito was over as a solid upper-mid card kind of guy, but he wasn’t really anyone you would have at the front of the queue when it came to potential GHC Heavyweight Champs, so a big part of this match revolves around Kobashi presenting Saito as someone who is on his level who could potentially win so that the crowd gets emotionally invested in the contest.
Both men continue to throw strikes at each other, with Saito actually getting the better of the exchanges more than once, which leads to Kobashi having to send the challenger outside for a plancha before taking him up to the ramp way for a pair of DDT’s. Saito no sells some chops back inside the ring to show he’s still in the contest in a nice show of defiance, but Kobashi quickly locks him in a step-over toe-hold face-lock in an effort to grind him down. Kobashi has kind of taken the Heel stance here, dating all the way back to when he essentially bailed and stalled for time following the back drop in the early part of the match. Saito is the one who has been kind of shining on Kobashi and Kobashi has had to take things outside for the DDT’s on the ramp in order to really gain any sort of a foothold, whilst Saito has absorbed it all and is defiantly still trying to survive.
In an utterly terrifying spot, Kobashi tries to suplex Saito off the apron but ends up getting suplexed himself, only it goes awry and Kobashi ends up ladding upper back first on the apron before crashing down to the floor. You can see that Saito checks on him once it happens as he knew it wasn’t right, whilst Kobashi is clearly in all kinds of pain following the spot. The fact he took that and was seemingly okay following it is absolutely incredible as it looked ugly and I exclaimed watching it all by myself at home because it was that gnarly. Thankfully Kobashi can keep going following that, which leads to Saito working over his arm back inside the ring in order to take away his chops and Lariat. Kobashi of course sells of that excellently, with Saito getting some nice looking strikes and holds in order to work over the body part.
We head back out to the ramp, where Saito this time hits a move on Kobashi with a Uranage Slam, which leads to a count out tease. Kobashi manages to drag himself back inside, where Saito keeps kicking away at him. Kobashi shows great fire as he guts through the pain and the crowd gets into the idea of him fighting back. Kenta Kobashi is probably the best seller in all of Pro Wrestling. If it’s not him then he’s certainly in the top 3 or 5 of all-time when it comes to selling along with the likes of Shawn Michaels and Ricky Steamboat. Kobashi eventually tries to deliver ALL THE CHOPS to Saito, but his arm isn’t strong enough and that allows Saito to fight his way out of the corner and get a Shining Wizard for two before dropping Kobashi on the TOP of his head with a German Suplex!
Holy hand grenades, Kobashi is an absolute mad man to take a bump like that! Kobashi looks done following that, but in a nice call back he manages to snap off a desperation back drop on Saito, which was already established as a big move in the early part of the match and one of Saito’s big moves, so seeing Kobashi bust it out here is a nice subversion that the crowd wasn’t expecting. Saito replies with an enziguri, but Kobashi does the old delayed sell and gets a Lariat before collapsing for the double down. Saito throws a closed fist punch once both men are on their feet, which earns him a telling off from the ref, before getting another enziguri for a good near fall.
Saito keeps working his way through his arsenal but Kobashi keeps managing to kick out, although the crowd is getting more into the match with every big move and kick out. They’ve built this one well and the general story telling of the match has been solid. Kobashi ends up getting mad and gets a series of vicious spinning chops in the corner on a gradually more beaten down Saito, with Saito selling them with a great look of exhaustion and helplessness. Saito gets to kick out of a Lariat, which leads to Kobashi throwing some closed fists of his own as payback for earlier due to Saito getting him all ticked off, and a Brain Buster ends things straight after.
WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION: KENTA KOBASHI
This was a great match, with Saito being all surly and Kobashi eventually replying in kind once Saito pushed him too far. Some of the bumps Kobashi took here were absolutely bonkers and started to make me fear for his sanity. Kobashi did a good job as always of making his challenger look credible without taking anything away from himself and the crowd was really into the match by the time it ended. It was fun to see Kobashi actually get angry at an opponent and borderline punish them for it as well, as it wasn’t something you always saw with him
Saito seemed to really rile Kobashi up in that one so he doesn’t get the handshake treatment like the previous two guys did.
Three great matches that all felt different from one another and highlighted how good Kobashi was at elevating opponents to his level when it came to big matches. Next week we’ve got our concluding part where Kobashi will take on Mike Awesome, Minoru Suzuki and Takeshi Rikio. Let’s hope he’s got at least one more classic left in him.