(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama - July 24th, 1998, by Alex Podgorski

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama - July 24th, 1998, by Alex Podgorski

Kenta Kobashi’s nickname for many years has been ‘the Ironman of Puroresu’. And I don’t mean that he’s secretly a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist with a penchant for witty remarks and a badass metal suit. I mean that literally; that he’s so tough and can withstand such agonizing punishment that he must secretly be made of iron.

This match is a perfect demonstration of that nickname in action. It’s one of his best singles matches as a defending champion, and easily the best wrestling match from the summer of 1998. It’s Kobashi’s first title defense as AJPW’s top champion, against close rival Jun Akiyama.

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.

The story

Kobashi and Akiyama have an interesting history together. Kobashi was Akiyama’s first opponent, and the two of them put on arguably the best debut match in wrestling history. Akiyama then spent many years teaming with Kobashi and Misawa against Kawada and his crew in six-and-eight-man tag matches. But from time to time, Akiyama would face Kobashi in singles competition. Yet as Kawada tried to beat Misawa and failed more often than not, so too did Akiyama against Kobashi. It seemed that whatever Akiyama did, he just couldn’t beat Kobashi in singles competition.

Fast forward to the summer of 1998. Kobashi defeated Toshiaki Kawada (who was to him what he is to Akiyama: a seemingly-unbeatable senior wrestler) to become Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. And now he’s making his first defense against Akiyama. This is a big deal for Akiyama. Up to this point, he’s been mostly known for being a tag team specialist, not a singles guy. So he’s hoping to break that stigma and prove he could perform at an elite level on his own and without a partner in his corner.

The match

This match originally took place on July 24th, 1998 in Tokyo’s famous Budokan Hall. It was originally rated 4.5-stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

This is for the AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Kobashi has extra padding on his right knee because it’s hurt to some degree.

The bell rings and the crowd is already very excited. We get an early strike exchange, then Kobashi ducks a forearm smash and goes for a backdrop suplex. But Akiyama reverses into a pin in midair and fires back with more strikes. Kobashi blocks an Akiyama jumping knee and drops him with a shoulder tackle. Akiyama gets up right away and immediately grabs Kobashi’s injured right knee. But Kobashi reaches the ropes quickly, forcing Akiyama to let go. But not before Akiyama teases a kick to the knee that Kobashi dodges. That sets the tone for the rest of the match as the fans applaud.

They do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock test of strength and both men try to suplex each other to no avail. Then Akiyama shows his superior grappling acumen and reverses the pressure on Kobashi much to the crowd’s delight. We get some more chain wrestling which ends as Kobashi blocks another forearm. A standoff ensues and the crowd applauds loudly.

After hitting some forearms, Akiyama lands a jumping knee that sends Kobashi down and pins him for a two-count. Akiyama applies a side headlock and keeps it on for a while until Kobashi escapes. He lands a spinning kick, but uses the right leg. Even landing one kick hurts as Kobashi sells pain from his own kick. Kobashi lands a delayed vertical suplex for two and lands more brutal knife-edge chops to the chest. He lands running knees to the gut and goes for a Russian leg sweep, but Akiyama blocks it, so Kobashi transitions into an abdominal stretch. This is smart  pro wrestling at its finest, let me tell you.

Kobashi’s in full control as we reach the five-minute mark. He keeps the hold locked in, even as Akiyama sinks to the mat. Kobashi lands a leg drop to the back of Akiyama’s neck, beginning the wear-down process to weaken Akiyama for his wide array of neck-targeting finishers. Kobashi pins, but gets a two-count. He hits more hard knees and chops to Akiyama, but Akiyama starts fighting back with strikes of his own. But it’s never a good idea to start a brawl with Kobashi, because more often than not he’ll just tank his opponent’s offense like a boss. But not this time. Akiyama fires away with forearms and Kobashi starts staggering. It takes multiple stiff kicks and slaps to the face for Akiyama to knock Kobashi down.

Akiyama whips Kobashi into a corner and then lands a snapmare/dropkick combo for a two-count. He applies a reverse chinlock but Kobashi eventually escapes. Kobashi starts chopping Akiyama’s chest, but Akiyama reverses an Irish whip and charges with a jumping knee, only for Kobashi to block that and send Akiyama down. Kobashi tries to escape the corner with his trademark rolling back chop, but Akiyama ducks and dropkicks Kobashi’s weakened right knee.  That gets a huge reaction from everyone as Kobashi screams in pain. Sensing an opening, Akiyama starts targeting that right knee with surgical precision. He grabs the leg and even as Kobashi hits multiple stiff chops to Akiyama’s neck, Akiyama drops Kobashi with a massive dragon screw leg whip.

Akiyama starts stomping on that knee, but Kobashi starts channeling his burning spirit. With each kick, Kobashi gets closer to being back to hit feet, even as Akiyama dares him to try and stand. Kobashi absorbs each hit like an absolute champion, and the crowd starts roaring. Kobashi blocks an Akiyama charge with a chop and tries another rolling back chop, but Akiyama blocks that and lands a huge exploder suplex. Excellent counter. But Kobashi’s back up right away. Half-Nelson Suplex by Kobashi. Akiyama got dropped on his head and neck. But Akiyama gets up right away and dropkicks Kobashi’s knee again. Both men are down. Unbelievably amazing sequence.

We’re at the ten-minute mark as Akiyama rolls out of the ring to recover as Kobashi looks to be in extreme pain. Akiyama drags Kobashi out of the ring and attempts an Irish whip, but Kobashi reverses it, sending Akiyama into the steel barricade. Akiyama blocks Kobashi’s charge with a kick and teases an exploder, but Kobashi reverses that. Half-Nelson on the ringside mats by Kobashi. Another great neck-targeting move. Kobashi pins Akiyama in the ring but Akiyama kicks out at 2.5. Akiyama does the same after a big DDT from Kobashi, and again after a dragon suplex.

Then Kobashi teases a powerbomb, but he can’t even lift Akiyama a few inches into the air without hurting his knee. Amazing selling. That’s how it’s done. So he tries again after hitting a few chops and lands the powerbomb successfully, but can’t capitalize on it because Akiyama’s work on his knee is still hurting him. Talk about making the most out of something.

Akiyama crawls to the apron and Kobashi gives chase. He teases a half-nelson suplex from the apron, but Akiyama fights out of it. Kobashi tries to fight back with chops but Akiyama just kicks the damaged knee. That stops Kobashi dead in his tracks and gives Akiyama another desperate opening. Dragon screw leg whip from the apron to the floor. Good God, what an insane move. Kobashi looks like he’s in legitimate pain. That he’s crossed the threshold from selling to being in real pain. Even I can’t tell anymore, that’s how realistic and tense this all looks.

Akiyama’s in control as we pass the fifteen-minute mark. Akiyama can’t even lift Kobashi into position for his next move because Kobashi’s still clutching his knee. Not wanting to give up the advantage, Akiyama wraps Kobashi’s right knee into the steel ring barricade then dropkicks the barricade itself, weakening that knee even further. Even the commentator screams loudly at that sight. Things only get worse for Kobashi as Akiyama smashes his knee into the top of the barricade. Then, as Kobashi gets into the ring, Akiyama continues his onslaught by placing Kobashi in the tree of woe and dropkicks the knee again. This is possibly the purest and best example of wrestling psychology available on YouTube. I feel like I’m watching a clinic right now.

Akiyama continues to work the knee with a bow-and-arrow-style submission hold, but Kobashi reaches the ropes. So Akiyama places him on the top turnbuckle and lands a dragon screw from the top rope. Kobashi immediately rolls out of the ring to avoid Akiyama capitalizing on that, showing great ring awareness in the process. But Akiyama isn’t far behind, as he picks Kobashi up and smashes his knee into the steel barricade yet again. Back in the ring, Akiyama dropkicks the knee some more then applies a figure-4 leglock. The crowd’s making a lot more noise than they usually do in spots like this because AJPW rarely used submissions as actual finishes. But in this case, they believe Kobashi actually might give up because of how much damage Akiyama has done to his already-weakened knee.

We’re at the twenty-minute mark as Akiyama maintains the Figure-4. He’s wrenching it as much as he can as Kobashi screams loudly and the fans chant Kobashi’s name. Akiyama then switches to a sharpshooter and Kobashi screams even louder. But he refuses to give up, no matter how bad the pain is. He’s like Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13, not wanting to tap out.

Akiyama releases the hold and the referee checks on Kobashi, asking him if he wants to quit. Kobashi shakes his head vigorously. He wants to keep fighting. What a valiant champion. As Kobashi uses the ropes and the ref for leverage to get up, Akiyama kicks the knee again. He follows with a knee crusher, but Kobashi explodes with a massive LARIATO out of nowhere. That gives Kobashi some desperate moments to recover.

Kobashi hobbles over to the other end of the ring where Akiyama is, using the ropes for leverage. They have another strike exchange, and Kobashi wins this one with brutal chops to the side of the neck. Then he applies a Misawa-style facelock to do further damage to Akiyama’s neck. Kobashi pins, but Akiyama kicks out at two. So Kobashi fires back with multiple hard chops that send Akiyama down once more.

We’re at the twenty-five-minute mark as Kobashi hits more hard chops to Akiyama’s head. He teases another half-nelson suplex but Akiyama avoids it by kicking Kobashi’s knee again in another great counter. Akiyama clips the knee then hits a running knee smash into the corner. He follows that with a Double-Arm DDT, which is Kobashi’s old finisher. Still not done, Akiyama ascends the top rope and lands a diving forearm smash to the back of Kobashi’s head. He pins, but Kobashi kicks out at 2.9. amazing sequence.

Akiyama maintains control with an exploder suplex and another dropkick to Kobashi’s knee. He pins after yet another exploder, but Kobashi kicks out at 2.8. Akiyama goes for the figure-4 again, but this time Kobashi holds one of Akiyama’s legs away to prevent him from applying the hold with full pressure. He fails and Akiyama manages to cinch the hold in fully. Kobashi writhes in pain and is forced off his shoulders, otherwise he’d get pinned. But that only puts more pressure on his knee, giving Akiyama the perfect advantage. Kobashi nearly gets pinned for three several times, getting the shoulder up at the last possible moment. This is unbelievably intense.

Akiyama picks Kobashi up and Kobashi tries to fire back with chops. Akiyama ignores them and kicks the knee some more, then lands a massive brainbuster on Kobashi. Damn, where did that come from? The referee counts one, two, thr—no, Kobashi kicks out at 2.99. Amazing near-fall.

We’re at the thirty-minute mark as Akiyama teases the wrist-clutch exploder, his biggest finisher. But Kobashi escapes with elbows Akiyama tries it again after kicking the knee, but Kobashi escapes a second time and hits another massive LARIATO to the back of Akiyama’s head. Both men go down.

Akiyama charges with a forearm, and Kobashi responds with another lariat. But Akiyama blocks it and lands a huge exploder suplex. But Kobashi gets back up right away, channeling his burning spirit. LARIATO! But Kobashi can’t capitalize because of the knee damage. The entire building erupts in Kobashi chants.

Kobashi gets up first and applies a sleeperhold, which he then turns into a sleeper suplex. Akiyama gets dropped on his head once again. Another massive LARIATO by Kobashi. Akiyama looks like he got hit by a freight train with that move. The referee counts one, two, thr—no, Akiyama kicks out. Akiyama kicks out at 2.99! Bukodan Hall has become unglued.

With one final push, Kobashi grabs Akiyama’s head with one arm and cocks the other one. BURNING LARIAT! The referee counts one, two, three! That’s it! Kobashi has won!

Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 32:50: Kenta Kobashi

Jun Akiyama vs Kenta Kobashi (July 24, 1998)

 

Review

This was an absolute epic. Just incredible. Both wrestlers put on a spectacular performance. Everything looked so real and captivating. This is what pro wrestling should be everywhere.

This is the kind of back-and-forth wrestling match that benefits both wrestlers equally. Akiyama showed his wrestling smarts by attacking Kobashi’s knee savagely and unrelentingly. And Kobashi, despite being stronger and more experienced, had to overcome a faster, healthier, more technically-gifted opponent. That forced him to work from beneath instead of from a dominant position as champion.

And once again, Kenta Kobashi showed how selling in wrestling should be done. Kobashi wasn’t just lying on the ground immediately after being kicked in the leg. He infused that logic into his offensive approach as well. When he went for a powerbomb, he couldn’t land it the first time because it required too much strength from a badly-weakened knee. And given how well he sold the damage (along with Akiyama’s brutal attacks), it made the match so much more captivating. Kobashi sold for Akiyama like a boss and blurred the line between scripted selling and real pain in a way that very few wrestlers, if any, can do.

But with all that focus on Kobashi’s leg, Akiyama neglected to give any attention to Kobashi’s arm. That rookie mistake allowed Kobashi to capitalize by delivering several brutal lariats out of nowhere and win the match. But it wasn’t a decisive win. Kobashi didn’t beat Akiyama; he survived Akiyama.

Kobashi and Akiyama went to war with each other in this match. They delivered some excellent wrestling and typical King’s Road-style twists and turns. And the psychology was off the charts. Akiyama targeted Kobashi’s leg while Kobashi focused on Akiyama’s neck. They had so many believable near-falls that benefitted from a story that was easy to follow and progressed logically. Just awesome stuff all around here.

Final Rating: *****

I adored this match. This is the perfect example of building someone up as a star of the future without making them overbearing. Although Akiyama winning wasn’t very likely, he went out of his way to convince you otherwise. He demonstrated his understanding of wrestling psychology and smart wrestling in a way that isn’t seen much today.

You have everything great about wrestling all condensed into one contest: intensity, back-and-forth action, unpredictability, logical decisions, smart grappling, drama and above all else, realism. Akiyama’s strategy coupled with Kobashi’s selling makes this feel as close to a real fight as pro wrestling can get. How this didn’t get 5-stars originally I have no idea. This is a must-see contest.

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