5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi – March 1st, 2003 by Alex Podgorski

Every wrestling fan has that one match, that one bout they keep re-watching to remind themselves why they love wrestling in the first place. Some people enjoy technical masterpieces, like Angle vs. HBK from Wrestlemania 21. Others prefer violent brawls, like Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin from Wrestlemania 13. And some people love a masterful, multi-layered and dramatic story, like CM Punk vs. John Cena from Money In The Bank 2011.

And then there’s myself, who likes having all of this combined into one. This is my favorite wrestling match of all time: the legendary final singles match between Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi from Pro Wrestling NOAH.

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.

The Story

Misawa and Kobashi have known each other for over a decade. Kobashi was Misawa’s right hand man when Misawa was fighting Jumbo Tsuruta in the early 1990s over the future of AJPW. Then Kobashi became Misawa’s regular tag team partner after Toshiaki Kawada turned on him. Together, they feuded with AJPW’s other top stars, especially Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue. Together, that foursome of wrestlers became known as The Four Pillars of Heaven. Their battles – both in singles and tag matches – are legendary. These men have more 5 star matches among them than anyone else in wrestling history.

But Kobashi wasn’t just a great tag team partner. He also proved he could hang with AJPW ace Misawa in singles matches as well. Between 1990 and 2000, Kobashi and Misawa faced each other in high-profile singles competition 15 times. Misawa won each and every one of those matches. Each time Kobashi challenged for, or tried to defend against, Misawa, he’d come up short.

Then in 2000, Misawa left AJPW to form Pro Wrestling NOAH, and Kobashi went with him. The plan was for Kobashi to carry the brand during its critical formative years. But Kobashi had to take time off at the end of 2000 for knee surgery. By 2002, Kobashi had over 12 knee surgeries and had to completely change his wrestling style around that.

While Kobashi was gone, NOAH struggled to find someone around whom it could build its brand. Knowing how popular and skilled Kobashi was, the decision was made to set up the final confrontation between the Emerald Emperor and the Ironman of Puroresu.

In this match, Kobashi hoped to not only claim the biggest prize in NOAH, but to also finally prove to the world that he was better than the god-like Misawa. Could he do it?

The Match

Both Kobashi and Misawa enter to loud cheers and fans chanting their names. That’s a big deal because Japanese fans aren’t like American fans in that they rarely go about organized chanting like we do here. They save that for only the biggest stars, which speaks volumes of the magnitude of this match.

This is for the GHC Heavyweight Championship. They lock up and get a clean break on the ropes. Misawa ducks a rolling back chop from Kobashi that looked like it could’ve cleaved his head off. They lock up again and exchange stiff strikes. A brief chain grappling sequence ends in a stalemate as the crowd applauds. A third lock up leads to a fireman’s carry by Misawa and an arm lock on Kobashi. Excellent psychology there as Misawa begins targeting Kobashi’s arms, which will make his offense later weaker and harder for him to execute.

They engage in a power struggle that sends Kobashi to the canvas with his arm at Misawa’s mercy. Another power struggle ensues and Kobashi reverses the arm lock on Misawa. But Misawa does his patented somersault reverse sequence and gets out of it. Damn, even at 40 years old, Misawa was still athletic as hell. Misawa goes for an elbow strike, but Kobashi ducks it and tries for a Half-Nelson Suplex. Misawa blocks that and another chain grappling sequence starts, and Kobashi charges Misawa, only to be hit with a Backdrop Driver, and Kobashi lands directly on top of his head!

Good God, we’re less than five minutes into this match and we’ve already had one crazy head spike.

Kobashi rolls out of the ring, but Misawa ascends the top turnbuckle and hits a diving elbow smash. Misawa gets back into the ring first as the crown chants Kobashi’s name. But as soon as he’s to his feet, Misawa hits a diving rolling senton from the apron. Back in the ring, Misawa hits a missile dropkick, followed by a Tiger Body Press (Frog Splash) for the first 2-count of the match. Misawa then locks in an inverted armbar on Kobashi’s right arm (which is his lariat arm). Kobashi struggles very hard to reach the rope with his foot, forcing Misawa to break the hold.

Misawa with a standing arm lock brings Kobashi to his knees. Misawa is really destroying that lariat arm as much as he can. Kobashi reaches the ropes, forcing Misawa to break the hold, and then they exchange stiff strikes again. Kobashi goes for a running shoulder tackle but Misawa elbows him in the face, and locks in that arm lock once more. They both get up and the hold is broken in the corner. Kobashi whips Misawa into the corner, Misawa blocks it and goes for an elbow, but Kobashi ducks it and lock in a standing sleeper hold.

Misawa powers out and hits a standing dropkick that sends Kobashi out of the ring. Misawa then hits a sliding dropkick that sends Kobashi to the steel ring barricade. Then Misawa goes for the elbow suicida but Kobashi moves, so Misawa skins the cat and goes for another diving splash from the apron, but Kobashi chops him and he lands face-first on top of the steel barricade. Ouch, that really has to hurt. Suddenly the momentum has shifted and Kobashi gets a few precious moments to recover from Misawa’s earlier onslaught.

misawa

Kobashi places Misawa torso-first on the steel barricade and leg drops him twice as we reach the ten-minute mark. A brief struggle ends with Kobashi hitting a Half-Nelson suplex on Misawa on the ringside mats. Kobashi recovers and brings Misawa to the turnbuckle and smashes him into it a few times. Back in the ring, Kobashi hits a delayed gourdbuster for a two-count. Standing neck crank by Kobashi shows more great psychology. Most of Kobashi’s big moves target the neck, so Kobashi begins focusing on that body part.

They have another strike exchange, Kobashi kicks Misawa in the gut and hits a running leg drop to the back of Misawa’s head for another two-count. Moments later, Kobashi locks in another painful-looking face lock to work Misawa’s neck and then pins him for a two-count. Kobashi throws Misawa outside onto the entrance ramp (which, as we should emphasize, is elevated and connected directly to the ring), and hits Misawa with a DDT on that same ramp and gets yet another two-count as we hit the 15-minute mark.

Misawa reverses an Irish whip into the corner and goes for a monkey flip, but Kobashi grabs his legs and smashes him face-first into the top turnbuckle. Kobashi follows this with two consecutive Half-Nelson suplexes, because he knows one isn’t enough to keep Misawa down. Kobashi then locks in a full-nelson submission hold with bodyscissors, putting even more pressure on Misawa’s neck as the crowd chant’s Misawa’s name.

Misawa rolls to the ropes and breaks the hold as blood pours from Misawa’s chin from his earlier barricade experience. Kobashi chops the hell out of Misawa’s head and heck as Misawa falls to one knee. Kobashi begins chopping downwards onto Misawa, but Misawa starts ‘hulking up’ and no-selling kobashi’s vicious strikes. They’re both standing now and exchange stiff strikes once again, but Kobashi powers through and hits Misawa with a massive Backdrop Driver that gets a 2.5-count.

Kobashi goes for another Backdrop Driver, but Misawa reverses it and hits a German suplex onto Kobashi. Kobashi channels his BURNING SPIRIT and is up seconds later, only to walk into a Tiger Suplex, but won’t stay down after that either! Damn, Kobashi just won’t die!

They’re both back up now. Stiff elbow by Misawa, rolling back chop by Kobashi, followed by a rolling elbow by Misawa finally sends Kobashi back down to the mat. Standing ovation from the crowd. Suddenly I feel like I’m watching an NXT TakeOver special, that’s how raucous this crowd is.

They’re both back up and Misawa goes for a Tiger Suplex ’85 (a sleeper-hold-like version of the suplex) but Kobashi blocks that. They exchange and block each other’s strikes and Misawa attempts a Tiger Driver, but Kobashi blocks that too, so Misawa hits several vicious strikes to Kobashi’s neck. A successful Tiger Driver only gets a 2.5-count as we reach the 20-minute mark, and then Misawa hits a bridging Tiger Suplex ’85 for 2.75. Misawa with different neck-based submission holds to return the favor to Kobashi from earlier. A second Tiger Driver gets 2.5 again as Misawa continues to wear down Kobashi with one pinfall attempt after another.

Misawa goes for the Emerald Flowsion but Kobashi powers out, knocks Misawa into the turnbuckle and hits his fourth Half-Nelson Suplex. Misawa is back up immediately, charges at Kobashi, but walks into a Sleeper Suplex that drops him right on his head as both of them are down. They both get up and Misawa attempts a diving back elbow, but Kobashi responds by hitting a Lariat to the back of Misawa’s head that gets a 2.75-count. There’s that storytelling from earlier. Kobashi’s arm was destroyed earlier so he can’t hit it with the same amount of force as he could if the arm was healthy.

They both charge at each other, and Kobashi hits a running LARIATO for a 2.8-count. Kobashi picks Misawa up and goes for the Brainbuster but Misawa reaches the rope and the move is broken. Kobashi tries to suplex Misawa, but Misawa lands on his feet on the entrance ramp and suplexes Kobashi over the top rope onto the ramp. Wow, that was a clever move. Kobashi slowly gets up, only to be hit with an elbow suicida from Misawa. Both of them are down on the ramp as we reach the 25-minute mark.

Misawa is up first and tries for a Tiger Driver on the entrance ramp but Kobashi blocks it. He tries to fight back, but Misawa elbows him and then hits a Tiger Suplex from the entrance ramp to the floor!! HOLY SHIT!! THAT WAS INSANE!!

tiger suplex

The referee begins the ring-count (it goes up to 20 in Japan) as both of them are down. I like how the announcer’s voice gets louder and more concerned as the ring count gets higher. Misawa gets in at the count of 18 and Kobashi just BARELY gets in at 19.5, and kicks out at 2.75 as soon as he’s back in the ring. Misawa with a jumping knee to Kobashi’s face gets yet another two-count as we reach the thirty-minute mark. Misawa hits two HARD back elbow strikes and then plants Kobashi with the Emerald Flowsion! That looks like the end! The referee counts one…two…thr- NO, only a 2.999. Amazing! No one has ever kicked out of the Emerald Flowsion before. Kobashi’s will to win cannot be stopped.

Misawa goes for the Tiger Driver ’91, his most vicious of finishers, but Kobashi still powers through. They charge at and bounce off one another and Kobashi hits another LARIATO for 2.9 again. Kobashi picks Misawa up again and hits a savage Brainbuster for yet another 2.9-count. All that work destroying Misawa’s neck and the Emerald Emperor still won’t stay down! Talk about endurance. No wonder the crowd erupts in ‘MI-SA-WA’ chants. With one final push, Kobashi hoists Misawa onto his shoulders and nails the Burning Hammer!!!

burning hammer

The ref (and the crowd) count one…two…THREE!  Match over!

Winner and NEW GHC Heavyweight Champion after 33:28: Kenta Kobashi

NOAH Kobashi vs Misawa 01 03 2003

Review

HELL YES! THAT WAS FANTASTIC! What a spectacular, jaw-dropping, mesmerizing wrestling match. This, in my opinion, is the best match of the entire decade of the 2000s. It’s an amazing, brutal contest that serves as a prime example of what two wrestlers that know each other well can do, regardless of physical limitations. It had amazing psychology, stiff offense, and compelling drama. These two legendary wrestlers managed to out-do themselves and close their storied rivalry in truly epic fashion.

That said, I want to get something out of the way here: this match could easily be dismissed as a glorified spot-fest. There’s plenty of evidence to support that, especially the crazy bumps (like the apron tiger suplex) that were thrown in there for seemingly no reason. However, there is rhyme and reason behind every move in this match. Aside from the King’s Road style focusing on endurance, it also references callbacks to previous matches. This match includes elements from previous matchups between Misawa and Kobashi that make it seem more like another chapter in a larger story than a standalone match.

As I mentioned earlier, this was the 16th high-profile singles match between Misawa and Kobashi since 1990. There are certain subtleties and callbacks in this match that harken back to those battles of yesteryear. Misawa almost always won with his big elbow smashes, which is why Kobashi surviving them in this match meant more. Of all of Misawa’s legendary opponents, Kobashi is the only one to have ever kicked out of his insta-kill super-finisher, the Tiger Driver ’91, and that didn’t happen for the first time until 1998. Misawa didn’t land the TD’91 in this match; had he done so, this match could’ve ended very differently. Kobashi is also the first person to kick out of the Emerald Flowsion, a new big finisher Misawa introduced (and created) back in 1998 and brought him victory every time it was busted out.

Kobashi, on the other hand, has a wrestling style that directly targets the head, neck and upper shoulders of his opponents. He targeted Misawa’s neck with every big move he had, but Misawa being the absolute tank he is, kept powering out. So Kobashi had to answer this with the ultimate finisher, the Burning Hammer, to keep Misawa down for the three-count.

That simple story of toughness, endurance, and determination is underscored by a deep psychology of two wrestlers weakening each other while referencing their shared past. Misawa had spent years getting dropped on his head and neck, which made that a prime weakness and therefore a target for his opponents. Kobashi’s extensive knee damage required him to focus almost exclusively on strikes and power moves, which meant his arms would also become targets. And lo and behold, those weaknesses were utilized in this match. Misawa tried to destroy Kobashi’s arms and it worked because Kobashi couldn’t win with the Burning Lariat. Kobashi hit move after move on Misawa’s neck, before getting a decisive victory through the Burning Hammer.

I should also point out that both Misawa and Kobashi were both past their primes in terms of health and physique at this point. Misawa was in his best form between 1993 and 1999, and Kobashi simply was not the same wrestler that he was during the 1990s. Kobashi had undergone multiple knee surgeries beginning at the end of 2000, and when he returned, he had to change his wrestling style completely. He couldn’t hit all those flying and speed-based wrestling moves like before, and Misawa’s body had long since broken down to the punishing toll of the King’s Road wrestling style. Although they were both injury-free going into this match, neither wrestler was without pain or weakness at this point in their respective careers.

And yet despite those limitations, they STILL put on such a spectacular wrestling match. That speaks volumes of how phenomenal they were as wrestlers, even at this stage. Either one of them could be described as a once-in-a-lifetime wrestler and you’d have plenty of evidence to support that claim.

Although it is difficult to always look at this match in a positive light given the aftermath (NOAH struggled to find someone credible enough to defeat Kobashi and Misawa refused to retire or even slow down, which resulted in his unfortunate and untimely death), in a vacuum this match is simply phenomenal.

After winning this, Kobashi would go on to hold NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Championship for 735 days, the longest single title reign in Japanese history. During this time, NOAH would cement itself as the top wrestling company in the world, and became the top combat spots draw in Japan. In an era when wrestling was viewed as fake and outdated, and mixed martial arts was outdrawing it by leaps and bounds, NOAH still out-drew pretty much everyone. Ticket sales were through the roof and the promotion was making money hand over fist. And Kobashi was the ace and centrepiece that carried the brand on his shoulders.

Final Rating: *****

An easy 5 stars. There’s no way to rate this match as anything less than perfect. This is my favorite match of all time for several very good reasons. All the elements of an ideal match were present: the story, the drama, the believability that either man could win, credible near-falls, and off-the-charts athleticism. Even with a greater emphasis on big moves and high-risk head spikes over traditional wrestling psychology, this is a must-watch for any wrestling fan. It’s definitely a contender for greatest wrestling match of all time. I cannot recommend this match enough.

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