(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi - October 21st, 1997

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi - October 21st, 1997

Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi are two of the greatest wrestlers to ever live. Whether as partners or as opponents, they’ve managed to wrestle at such an elite level that their matches have largely withstood the test of time. Even now, almost twenty years after they wrestled their last epic match together, many diehard wrestling fans consider their matches to be better than anything else in pro wrestling history.

Today we revisit a match that is far lower in quality compared to the standard Misawa and Kobashi set for themselves. If any other combination of wrestlers were to have a match this good, they’d proclaim it as their magnum opus. But for Misawa and Kobashi, it’s one of their weakest, while still being tremendous.

Today we revisit the hidden gem match between Misawa and Kobashi from October 21st, 1997.

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

This is the eleventh-ever singles match between Misawa and Kobashi. Prior to this match happening, two important matches took place. First, on January 20th, 1997, Misawa beat Kobashi to win the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. My review for that match can be found here, and I genuinely think it’s in the top ten greatest professional wrestling matches ever.

Secondly, two months later, Kobashi managed to beat Misawa in AJPW’s annual Champion Carnival tournament. That win was critical for Kobashi because it was the first time in three years that he had beaten Misawa in any sort of singles match. And in the finals of the same tournament, they had a rematch that went to a 30-minute draw. So with this match, not only was Kobashi looking to reclaim the title he lost to Misawa in January, but he also wanted to capitalize on his Champion Carnival success and prove that he could beat Misawa outside that special annual tournament.

The match

This match originally took place on October 21st, 1997, in Tokyo’s Budokan Hall. It was rated ****1/2 stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and was voted the 1997 Match of the Year by Tokyo Sports. Let’s see if both of those distinctions were truly deserved.

They get a clean break on the first lock-up. Kobashi blocks an elbow and lands a stiff rolling chop to Misawa’s neck and a rolling kick to the gut that sends Misawa out of the ring. Kobashi tosses him back in but Misawa fires back with elbows. Misawa whips Kobashi, Kobashi holds onto the ropes and avoids a dropkick. Kobashi charges, Misawa goes for a spinkick, but Kobashi catches his leg. Backdrop suplex. Awesome counter. Half-Nelson suplex. Misawa gets dropped on his neck and rolls out of the ring to safety. Great start to the match.

Ringside, Kobashi lands a big chop and goes for a powerbomb. Misawa resists so Kobashi tries to deadlift him, but Misawa counters into a Frankensteiner and then drops him with a hard elbow. In the ring, Misawa gets a one-count off his diving spinning lariat, followed by a two-count off a diving elbow. Misawa applies a sitting abdominal stretch but Kobashi crawls to the ropes. Misawa takes control of the match with a variety of elbow strikes, and then gets another two-count off another diving elbow and a type of Stunner at the five-minute mark.

Kobashi reverses an Irish whip into a corner but Misawa counters with a diving back elbow. Misawa follows with a baseball slide kick and an elbow suicida that sends Kobashi careening into the ringside barricade. A diving shotgun dropkick gets Misawa another two-count, so he applies a facelock. Kobashi almost reaches the ropes, so Misawa twists Kobashi’s body in the opposite direction to make that harder. Great ring awareness by Misawa.

Kobashi makes it to the ropes and then to his feet but Misawa drops him with a barrage of elbow smashes. Kobashi tries to catch Misawa off-guard by suplexing him over the top rope. He succeeds in lifting Misawa up, but Misawa lands on his feet and elbows Kobashi’s taped-up right leg. Back suplex from the apron to the—wait, no, Kobashi counters into a crossbody press in midair. Excellent counter.

Kobashi gets in the ring first and tackles Misawa off the apron and Misawa goes down hard. Then Kobashi climbs to the top rope and flies. Diving crossbody to Misawa on the floor. I think Kobashi just inspired Hiroshi Tanahashi, who’d start doing the same thing on a regular basis fifteen years later.

Ten minutes have passed as Kobashi pins Misawa in the ring for a two-count. Kobashi gets another two-count off a suplex then lands a running knee/Russian leg sweep combo and transitions into a vicious-looking abdominal stretch-type hold that seems to put pressure on Misawa’s neck, arm, and torso.

Misawa powers out so Kobashi chops the hell out of his neck and whips him into a corner. Misawa goes for his usual corner escape but Kobashi has him scouted and lands a Giant Baba running neckbreaker (as Giant Baba provides color commentary on this match). Kobashi lands a DDT and a second-rope dropkick for another two-count, then puts his own facelock on to further target Misawa’s neck. Misawa reaches the ropes to Kobashi snapmares him and applies a half-Nelson submission hold with bodyscissors. Misawa touches the ropes with the tip of his foot and escapes to ringside to recover.

Kobashi gives chase and goes for a Half-Nelson suplex but Misawa quickly grabs onto the barricade for safety. That’s a bad idea because Kobashi immediately guillotine leg drops Misawa’s neck, driving it into the top of the barricade. Half Nelson suplex connects. Misawa lands hard as we pass the fifteen-minute mark.

Misawa looks to be in rough shape as Kobashi tosses him back in the ring, but then he rolls back out, desperate to get crucial seconds to try and recover. Kobashi lands another barricade leg drop and gets another two-count in the ring. Misawa tries to fire back but gets DDT’d for his efforts. Misawa continues to hold his neck, and by doing so he might as well be screaming at Kobashi ‘hit me there’. And Kobashi, being smart, does exactly that by chopping the hell out of Misawa’s neck. Kobashi goes for a powerbomb, but Misawa counters into a perfect Frankensteiner for another two-count and Kobashi stops his comeback dead in its tracks with a big chop to the neck. Jackknife powerbomb. Misawa kicks out and tries to fight back. Kobashi shuts him down again and goes for another powerbomb. Misawa fights out and lands and enzuigiri. Kobashi charges. Misawa blocks. Rolling elbow smash. Kobashi falls like a tree being felled. Misawa get a critical chance to recover.

Misawa dropkicks Kobashi out of the ring and lands a top-rope diving elbow smash to the floor at the twenty-minute mark. In the ring, Misawa goes for a tiger Driver but Kobashi resists, so he transitions into a double-arm suplex instead. A frog splash gets Misawa another two-count as the crowd chants for Kobashi. Kobashi resists another Tiger Driver attempt and counters into a backslide attempt, but Misawa blocks and lands another big elbow smash, Tiger Driver connects. Kobashi kicks out. Misawa tries for the Tiger Driver again. Kobashi fights out. Misawa attempts a German suplex. Kobashi fights out. Misawa ducks a rolling chop. Kobashi ducks a rolling elbow. Nasty German suplex by Kobashi. Misawa gets right back up and charges. Sleeper by Kobashi. Misawa reaches the ropes and tries to fight on. Kobashi answers with another sleeper.  Misawa’s arm looks to be going limp. Kobashi pins, but Misawa still has enough energy to kick out.

Kobashi lands more chops to the neck and tries for another powerbomb but Misawa tries to walk to the ropes for safety. Another bad idea by Misawa because Kobashi lands a turnbuckle powerbomb, driving Misawa head-first into the corner. Kobashi fires up. The crowd’s going wild. Half-Nelson suplex. Followed by another. But Misawa gets his foot on the ropes as the twenty-five-minute mark passes.

Kobashi slams Misawa and goes for the moonsault but Misawa cuts him off. Kobashi fires back with more chops, another powerbomb, and another scoop slam. Diving moonsault connects. One, two, NO, Misawa kicks out at 2.8. Kobashi pins again out of desperation. Misawa still kicks out. Kobashi charges for a corner lariat but Misawa boots him. Like a runaway train, Kobashi keeps charging but Misawa either blocks or dodges him. Misawa takes control with an elbow smash and rolling kick, followed by a Tiger Suplex ’85 that drops Kobashi hard on his neck and shoulders. Misawa’s still in this.

Both men get up and trade stiff shots and Misawa shuts a charging Kobashi down with an elbow. They go back and forth with brutal chops and elbows, and Misawa drops Kobashi with another stiff elbow smash. Both men get up in opposite corners. Kobashi charges with a lariat. Misawa charges with a running elbow. Kobashi wins the exchange and drops Misawa. Both men go down from sheer exhaustion. The crowd is split down the middle cheering for both guys.

Kobashi lands more stiff chops, but Misawa ducks both a rolling chop and a lariat and lands a dragon suplex. But Kobashi hulks up AJPW-style and gets to his feet, despite landing on his neck. Rolling elbow smash by Misawa. Followed by a Tiger Driver. Kobashi kicks out at 2.9. Running elbow smash. Kobashi kicks out yet again. Misawa lands more elbows but Kobashi fights back with stiff chops. Rolling elbow smash by Misawa. Kobashi answers with a brutal short-range lariat out of nowhere! Kobashi pins. Misawa barely kicks out. Misawa blocks another lariat and Kobashi fights on with chops. Another brutal elbow smash combo by Misawa. Kobashi remains defiant and charges once more, but walks into more elbow smashes. Misawa pins once again but Kobashi still kicks out.

Kobashi’s basically on auto-pilot at this point, hitting chops more out of instinct than anything. But Misawa keeps shutting him down. Since his elbows aren’t working, there’s only one thing left for Misawa to do. He hooks both arms once again…and just necks Kobashi with the Tiger Driver ’91! One, two, three! There’s the match!

Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 32:55: Mitsuharu Misawa

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi (October 21st, 1997)

Review

That was by far the weakest Misawa/Kobashi world title match. And yet, I still think that their worst match together is better than most wrestlers’ best matches together, for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the unpredictable nature of their big matches. These two men have set such high standards for themselves that, in order to meet them and fans’ expectations, they had to keep fans guessing as to what would happen next. With each lock-up, exchange, control segment, and reversal sequence, there was absolutely no way of knowing if something would be countered, absorbed, ignored, or succumbed to. They crafted such a complex tale into their match which was centered on a simple and logical narrative about winners and losers. Kobashi wanted to regain the title and Misawa wanted to retain it. Because of that simple, relatable story, the fans got behind both Misawa and Kobashi easily and cheered loudly when the match reached its dramatic peak.

And the fans stayed invested in this match because it built up gradually instead of peaking early and falling into the modern ‘peak-valley-peak-valley’ style of match. The first third of the match was all about jockeying for control, the second one saw body parts being softened up, and the final act was a sprint to the finish line between two people that were neck-and-neck to the very end. So by the time the near-falls began, they were believable and made sense because both men had accumulated so much damage that they could’ve been felled at any time. And that drama was accompanied by a sense of realism that is hard to come by these days. The way both wrestlers moved, fought and sold for each other helped create a very convincing image that this wasn’t a ‘worked’ wrestling match, but a brutal war of attrition in which only one person would come out in one piece.

The story here was that Kobashi was looking for a new strategy that he hoped would finally work against Misawa. In their previous encounter on January 20th, Kobashi went all in with deep psychology and intense limb targeting, hoping to make it impossible for Misawa to land his trademark elbows. Here, Kobashi went in a different direction and went straight for Misawa’s neck with stiff strikes and high-impact bombs. And Misawa sold that damage fantastically, especially midway through the match. There was a sense of urgency in his actions because he kept rolling out of the ring. He knew Kobashi couldn’t win unless it was in the ring, so Misawa kept escaping to give himself critical time to recover. But that strategy was also risky because Kobashi used the steel barricade to his advantage, dropping a leg on Misawa and sending him neck-first into it.

And while I liked the logic behind that story, I also think that was this match’s greatest weakness. It came across as a complete logical fallacy that both Misawa and Kobashi – who knew each other so well at this point in time – didn’t do much of anything to weaken each other’s main weapons. Kobashi targeted Misawa’s neck, which made complete sense, but never tried to weaken Misawa’s arms so that his trademark elbow strikes would lose their potency. And Misawa did the same, never once tried to work over Kobashi’s lariat arm to try and make that move weaker. The only time Misawa attacked Kobashi’s taped-up leg was in a momentary distraction spot. That obvious piece of storytelling was completely ignored by Misawa in this match.

And while it’s true that Kobashi getting his leg worked over had been a staple of his big matches going as far back as 1991, that was so because it made perfect sense. Kobashi was a power wrestler that relied on the strength of his legs to land basically all of his biggest moves, especially his running lariat and his moonsault. If one were to take his leg out, he becomes much less credible of a threat. It just seemed out of place for Misawa to ignore that key piece of wrestling psychology in favor of doing a typical bomb-fest-style match.in my opinion, had Misawa attacked Kobashi’s leg, it would’ve gotten more sympathy for Kobashi from the fans, which would’ve made them react even more to his more valiant attempts at a comeback.

Final Rating: ****3/4

Even though it was far less impressive compares to other Misawa/Kobashi matches, this match still kicked ass. Anytime you get Misawa and Kobashi in a one-on-one setting, you’re bound to get your money’s worth. These two had such amazing chemistry in all of their big singles matches, including in this one. That chemistry translated into great wrestling, intense strike exchanges, brutal back-and-forth exchanges, and gripping drama that built up gradually and paid off in a fantastic crescendo.

If you want to see realistic and competitive pro wrestling, this match and others like it from 1990s AJPW will more than satisfy you. It feels less like a choreographed performance and more like a realistic fight without causing actual damage, which is what pro wrestling is supposed to be in the first place.

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