In 2000, the Japanese wrestling landscape was forever changed. All Japan Pro-Wrestling, arguably the most successful promotion in Japan during the 1990s, lost most of its roster due to internal politics. All but two of that company’s native talent left to work for a new company called Pro Wrestling NOAH. And as a company, NOAH had to hit the ground running or face certain doom.
For any wrestling company to be successful, they must find a way to keep fans interested for the long-term. To do that, the company must lure fans in with the promise of a big match that will set the standard for what will follow. And boy did NOAH ever deliver in that department.
Today we look at the first big match for Pro Wrestling NOAH, one that helped them establish a strong fanbase in a more cynical, peak-Inokism Japan: Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama from December 2000.
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.
In June of 2000, Mitsuharu Misawa took 95% of AJPW’s roster to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. Among his followers were the legendary Kenta Kobashi and his then-tag team partner Jun Akiyama. But as soon as they came to NOAH, Akiyama turned on Kobashi. He no longer wanted to be right hand man to a bigger star; he wanted to be the bigger star himself. He had proven at least once before that he could hang with Kobashi as his opponent, and now he sought to supplant Kobashi as the intended ace of Misawa’s new promotion.
Thus, on August 6th, 2000, they had a big singles match. And Akiyama won by choking Kobashi out with his new submission hold, the King Crab Lock. Akiyama was poised to become the ace of NOAH, but Kobashi wanted revenge. And so, a huge match was announced, pitting Kobashi and Akiyama against each other in what was NOAH’s biggest match at the time.
This match originally took place on December 23rd, 2000 and was rated 4.25-stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. There is no title on the line here; it’s just a straight singles match.
They lock up and Kobashi chops Akiyama down. They shoulder tackle each other and neither man goes down. Kobashi blocks a jumping knee, Akiyama blocks a chop and dropkicks Kobashi down, but gets up right away to tackle Akiyama back down. We have a stalemate as the crowd cheers in approval. A manly strike exchange ensues with Akiyama ordering Kobashi to chop him as hard as he can.
After some stalling/delaying, they do the test of strength spot and Akiyama out-wrestles Kobashi to gain the advantage. He takes Kobashi down, slaps him around a bit and applies a neck lock until Kobashi reaches the ropes. Akiyama’s showing some great psychology early on as he goes for Kobashi’s neck to weaken it for his new submission hold, the King Crab Lock (guillotine choke), which made Kobashi pass out four months prior to this match. But all that did was make Kobashi mad, as he pushes past the referee and chops the shit out of Akiyama’s neck.
Kobashi drags Akiyama ringside and Irish whips him. But Akiyama reverses it. Wait, no, Kobashi reverses Akiyama’s reversal. Kobashi goes for a big chop, Akiyama ducks and kicks Kobashi over the barricade.
Five minutes have passed as Akiyama slams Kobashi neck-first on the steel barricade. Back in the ring, Akiyama lands hard elbows to Kobashi in the corner then drops him with a jumping knee. Then he lands a DDT on the entrance ramp, which is elevated and connected to the ring. Then Akiyama gets a big running start and drops Kobashi with a running forearm smash. Akiyama tries to suplex Kobashi over the top rope, but Kobashi reverses it and suplexes Akiyama onto the entrance ramp. Damn, that looked like a painful landing.
Kobashi tries to maintain control with a rolling back chop, but Akiyama blocks it. He tries for an Exploder suplex on Kobashi, but Kobashi holds on and reverses it into a big DDT on the entrance ramp. Kobashi follows this with a rope-hung guillotine drop to the neck. Now it’s Kobashi’s turn to target the neck, weakening Akiyama for his wide array of neck-targeting moves. Another DDT from Kobashi gets him the first two-count of the match.
Kobashi applies a modified facelock as the ten-minute mark passes. Akiyama reaches the ropes so Kobashi chops at his neck again. Akiyama tries to reverse a whip with a back body drop but Kobashi applies a front chancery instead. Then he suplexes Akiyama while still holding the neck for a two-count. Akiyama reverses a whip into the corner and goes for a jumping knee, but Kobashi blocks and tosses him away with one hand. Kobashi applies a grounded headlock and cinches it in deep, making it very hard for Akiyama to escape. Even as he tries a back suplex, Kobashi keeps the headlock applied. Akiyama’s in a bind; going onto his shoulders could cause a pin, but staying on one shoulder puts more pressure on his head and neck. Akiyama gets to his feet eventually and Kobashi tries a vertical suplex, but Akiyama lands on his feet and dropkicks Kobashi’s knee. Huge opening for Akiyama.
Both men are down at the fifteen-minute mark. Akiyama lariats Kobashi but Kobashi tanks it like a boss. He charges for a second but Kobashi reverses into a Half-Nelson suplex. Both men are up right away. Kobashi charges for a lariat, but Akiyama reverses it into an Exploder suplex. Kobashi tries to fight through it but eats a jumping knee for his efforts. Both men collapse.
Akiyama chases Kobashi ringside and knees him hard in the arm. Not done, Akiyama grabs Kobashi’s right arm and smashes it with his knee into the steel barricade. Amazing psychology. Now Kobashi’s go-to lariat will be much weaker.
Akiyama follows with a Fujiwara armbar, wrenching the arm as much as possible. Then he pulls off some kind of rope-rung armlock, which forces Kobashi to chop with his better arm. This doesn’t faze Akiyama as he goes for a cross armbreaker. Kobashi holds on for dear life and even tries to roll into a pin, but Akiyama escapes and quickly puts Kobashi back on the defensive.
Akiyama’s forced to release a full cross armbreaker as we pass the twenty-minute mark. He lands an armbreaker using the steel ring rope, then kicks Kobashi’s arm into the steel barricade. Kobashi looks like he can barely move his arm, much less use it as a weapon. Another standing armbreaker from Akiyama. But he gets too greedy with those as Kobashi reverses one into a sleeper suplex, dropping Akiyama on his head.
Kobashi teases a powerbomb on the entrance ramp but Akiyama back body drops out of it. Kobashi lands a rolling back chop, but it causes him immense pain. He teases a Half-Nelson suplex and Akiyama almost escapes, but Kobashi’s still too strong. Akiyama gets planted on the entrance ramp with that suplex, giving Kobashi crucial time to recover.
Kobashi tosses a nearly catatonic Akiyama back into the ring and lands a jackknife powerbomb for a close two-count. Then he lifts Akiyama up for a vertical suplex…into an RKO! BLACK CRUSH!! Wow, what an amazing move. Let’s see Randy Orton do THAT! He pins, but Akiyama kicks out at 2.8.
We’re twenty-five minutes in as Kobashi charges with a lariat. Akiyama tries to reverse into an Exploder, but Kobashi reverses that with a lariat to the back of Akiyama’s head. Kobashi charges again, Akiyama lands a jumping knee to the arm. LARIATOO! Kobashi goes down as well. His arm is killing him. He crawls for the pin. The referee counts one, two thr—no, Akiyama kicks out at 2.9. Kobashi bodyslams Akiyama. He’s going for the moonsault. He gets to the top rope, but Akiyama cuts him off. Massive powerbomb by Akiyama. What a great save.
Both men are down again. Akiyama drags Kobashi to the apron for an Exploder Suplex, but Kobashi fights out of it. Akiyama lands a jumping knee to the face from the apron, sending Kobashi down. Then he removes the ringside mats. Exploder suplex onto the exposed floor. Good God that must hurt.
Akiyama drags Kobashi into the ring at the thirty-minute mark. He lands an elevated double-arm DDY and a diving forearm smash to the back of Kobashi’s head. Then he signals the end. Exploder suplex. The referee counts one, two, no, Kobashi kicks out somehow. King Crab Lock. Akiyama locks it in despite Kobashi’s resistance. But Kobashi reaches the ropes. Jumping knee. Another Exploder. Kobashi fights back. But Akiyama’s still healthier. Wrist-Clutch Exploder. Akiyama’s ultimate finisher. The match is over. One, two, NO, Kobashi kicks out. Another pin! Kobashi kicks out again. This is crazy.
Akiyama puts Kobashi on the top turnbuckle. He’s going for an avalanche Exploder. But Kobashi fights out. Lariat on the top rope. Akiyama falls down. Kobashi looks like he’s barely conscious. Then he starts stirring. And he looks angry. LARIATO! With the weakened arm. Akiyama kicks out. Burning short-range lariat. Akiyama kicks out again.
We’re now thirty-five minutes into the match. Kobashi tries yet another lariat. But Akiyama fights back. Kobashi answers with a brutal rolling back chop. Then he hoists Akiyama onto the top turnbuckle. And into the torture rack position. There’s no escape now. BURNING HAMMER by Kobashi!! The finisher of finishers makes its third-ever appearance.
The referee counts one, two, three! That’s it! There’s the match!
Winner after 35:58: Kenta Kobashi
That was awesome. It was another great chapter in the sprawling epic that is the rivalry between Kobashi and Akiyama. These two had great chemistry with each other and it showed. They knew each other’s big moves and create seamless grappling sequences out of those. The many teases, reversals, and escapes made this into an incredibly dramatic wrestling contest.
As usual, these guys showed what great ring psychology looks like from the very beginning. Kobashi attacked Akiyama’s neck with anything and everything in his arsenal, in order to set him up for his usual lariat finisher. But Akiyama widely attacked those arms to weaken that move, which translated into it failing to keep Akiyama down for the three-count. So Kobashi was forced to rely on his secret super-finisher, the Burning Hammer. It took Kobashi busting out this legendary move for only the third time ever to keep Akiyama down long enough. Taking that move actually helped Akiyama more than losing the match harmed him. If someone has to bust out the wrestling equivalent of the Tsar Bomb to beat you, that speaks volumes of your credibility and will to win.
That said, I did feel that this match was lacking in some aspects. Don’t get me wrong; this was a great match and it still holds up incredibly well twenty years later. And yet it really didn’t feel as epic as their other matches together. And I think a big part of that is due to the evolution of the King’s Road wrestling style. This match wasn’t in the same vein as Kobashi’s other epics from the 1990s. This was the newer NOAH style which focuses less on slower, psychology-driven struggles and more on wrestlers throwing bombs at each other in a maddening endurance contest. Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of well-placed psychology here, but it takes a backseat to Kobashi and Akiyama launching each other with as many high-impact moves as possible to create intense and credible near-falls. That’s what makes this match great, but at the same time renders it inferior to the 1990s AJPW classics.
Lastly, this is a match that suffers from being too long. I know that Kobashi’s calling hard is his bottomless well of stamina and his penchant for brutal epics. But while most of his earlier epics had ideal pacing for the amount of time given, this one didn’t. Kobashi and Akiyama looked like they were stalling too much early on and taking too many long breathers between explosive segments. And while they didn’t stretch any one segment too long or by a huge amount, it felt like several segments were each stretched for more than they needed to be. I think that this match would’ve been better if they cut out the opening posturing and went straight into a fast-paced reversal sequence or limb-targeting. This match would’ve benefitted from a sense of urgency established early on instead of halfway into the match when Akiyama first damaged Kobashi’s arm.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Although it’s not on the same level as the other Kobashi/Akiyama matches both before and after it, this is still a fantastic wrestling match. If you love high-impact moves, constant reversals, countless teases and tension that just builds and builds, you’ll be more than satisfied with this match. It still features the classic hallmarks of the King’s Road style (weakening limbs, brutal strikes, and sequences built on top of one another) while also adding a newer twist. Many people like pro wrestling simply because they want to see tough sonsofbitches do ludicrous things to one another in a fight to prove which one’s better/tougher. This match defines that mindset perfectly. And despite having a few flaws, it’s very entertaining as a match.
You know that two wrestlers are great when a match that’s considered fantastic-but-still-not-100% perfect is considered to be one of their weaker performances.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.