All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW) had the greatest pro wrestling run in history during the 1990s. That company’s run of amazing, high-quality matches was longer and deeper than any company’s before or since. Those matches were and still are better than NXT’s matches since 2013, better than most of New Japan matches since 2011, better than the overwhelming majority of WWE matches, and better than anything AEW has demonstrated to date.
Today we revisit one of many examples of AJPW’s greatness. For many people, it’s a lost classic, overshadowed by much better matches involving the same company and the same wrestlers in the same year. But in my opinion, this is one of the most underrated AJPW matches in history, and I think it’s good qualities make it more than worth revisiting over twenty years after it first took place.
It’s the world title match between Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi from June 12th, 1998.
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.
This match exists because in AJPW, wins and losses matter a lot, especially since they lead to simple yet great stories and rivalries. In this case, there are two stories being told. The first one goes like this. Two months earlier, Kawada pinned Mitsuharu Misawa clean to become Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. In doing so, he realized his big dream of finally beating Misawa, which was something he had been trying to do for five years on screen and much longer off-screen. But to prove to everyone that Kawada was better than Misawa, he hoped to have a long and successful title reign, which meant he had to try and beat Misawa’s reigns in terms of length and defenses. That was next to impossible because Misawa’s three championship reigns were 466, 364, and 705 days long, respectively.
The second story is that Kawada was defending his newly-won title against Kenta Kobashi, a man he had beaten many, many times over the course of the prior decade. In fact, Kobashi was not able to ever beat Kawada in singles competition. The closest Kobashi ever came to beating Kawada was a few 30- or 60-minute draws.
That is, until earlier in 1998, when Kobashi beat Kawada in an upset during the Champion Carnival tournament. But that win wasn’t considered a big deal because of the round-robin nature of the Carnival. Kobashi winning in the tournament was bound to happen sooner or later, so people didn’t give it much thought. But if Kobashi managed to beat Kawada outside the Champion Carnival, that would be treated like a very big deal.
Going into this match, Kobashi had some outstanding and high-profile title challenges before but had mostly come up short. Then in 1996 Kobashi beat Akira Taue to become Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion for the first time. But Taue was nothing more than a transitional champion, so beating him didn’t do as much to Kobashi as beating Kawada or Misawa would. That is what Kobashi hoped to do in this match. But boy was it ever going to be a challenge for him. Kawada was riding this monstrous wave of momentum after defeating the legendary Misawa. And if he could beat the seemingly-unbeatable Misawa, surely he could beat Kobashi just as easily…right?
This is the 23rd singles match between Kawada and Kobashi, and is for the AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. It originally took place on June 12th, 1998 and was rated **** by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how this match holds up now, over twenty years later.
The bell rings and the crowd is firmly behind Kobashi. They start the match with the Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Kobashi gets Kawada to the ropes. They do some cool amateur grappling, exchange armlocks, Kawada tries to put pressure on Kobashi’s back, and Kobashi gets to the ropes. A clean break leads to loud applause from the crowd.
Kobashi applies a very tight headlock that Kawada can’t escape by sending Kobashi into the ropes. Kawada touches the ropes but Kobashi maintains control with neck chops and a headlock takeover. He’s really trying to weaken Kawada’s neck early on. Kawada gets to the ropes and they start trading brutally stiff chops to the chest. Kawada lands a chop to the neck, which only angers Kobashi and he lands a neck chop so powerful it sends Kawada out of the ring.
Kobashi tries to whip Kawada into the steel barricade, but Kawada resists and chops Kobashi’s neck to escape. In the ring, Kobashi lands an elbow to the neck and applies a front chancery. He whips Kawada and lands a chop but Kawada tanks it like a man and drops Kobashi with a yakuza kick. Kobashi recovers a bit at ringside and Kawada rushes him as soon as he re-enters the ring. An angry Kobashi responds with a stiff spinkick to the gut, and when Kobashi goes to Irish whip Kawada off the ropes, he only lands one knee lift because Kawada slumps down in pain. That’s the sort of realism I miss from today’s wrestling: Kobashi normally lands a double running knee attack, but Kawada was in such pain he couldn’t move further, forcing Kobashi to adapt on the spot.
Kobashi drops his knee on Kawada’s ribs and stomps on it for good measure, taking advantage of a new and unexpected weakness. He goes for a vertical suplex but Kawada lands on top of him for a two-count. Kobashi chops Kawada’s chest, Kawada fires back with neck forearms, and Kobashi returns fire with even more neck chops. Kobashi goes to whip Kawada but Kawada counters into a massive spinkick. God, that’s such a great counter. Kobashi tries to return to the ring but Kawada yakuza kicks him off the apron.
Ten minutes have passed as Kobashi gets back in and Kawada step kicks his face. Kobashi no-sells and lands more chest chops. Kawada no-sells those and fires back with step kicks. Then they trade stiff slaps to the face. Kawada staggers (his selling is tremendous) and Kobashi lands a DDT. He goes for a second but Kawada stays on his feet and soccer kicks Kobashi’s back. Kawada blocks a chop and lands a stiff forearm. Running lariat! Kobashi rolls out of the ring to recover.
Kobashi takes his time getting to the apron; and when he does Kawada tries to suplex him over the ropes. Both men try this and resist each other so Kawada elbows and ax kicks Kobashi’s neck. Kawada lands multiple knee drops onto Kobashi’s neck and goes for a Backdrop Driver but Kobashi rushes to the ropes. Kawada lands a ton of hard strikes to Kobashi all over his head and chest until Kobashi starts hulking up All Japan-style. Kobashi tanks some kicks to the face, catches Kawada’s leg and lands some neck chops, but Kawada shuts him down with more hard kicks to the face. Kawada kicks Kobashi’s leg and Kobashi fires back with stiff chops. More step kicks from Kawada, followed by a yakuza kick in the corner and a jumping kick to the face. Kawada’s just destroying Kobashi here.
Kawada goes for a suplex and when Kobashi resists, Kawada unloads on him with more kicks. Kawada goes for another corner rope-assisted kick but Kobashi blocks this one and lands a Giant Baba-style running neckbreaker. Kobashi goes for a Half-Nelson suplex but Kawada gets to the ropes. So Kobashi tries for a German suplex but Kawada elbows back. Kobashi keeps trying and almost gets it until Kawada escapes with a big back kick. Kawada goes for a lariat but Kobashi counters into a Half-Nelson suplex. Brutal landing for Kawada. Kobashi goes for a powerbomb, Kawada resists and lands a yakuza kick, and Kobashi fires back with a rolling back chop to the neck. Powerbomb by Kobashi connects. But he’s not done. Tiger suplex. The crowd erupts in cheers. Kobashi crawls over for the pin. One, two, no, Kawada kicks out. Kobashi slams Kawada and goes for the moonsault. Kawada gets up and they brawl in the corner. Kobashi wins the exchange and jumps…right into a gamengiri kick to the face!
Both men are down as the crowd chants Kobashi’s name loudly. Kawada goes for a suplex but Kobashi resists and they trade neck chops. Kawada goes for a kick, Kobashi catches his leg, and Kawada lands an enzuigiri with the free leg. Chop/kick combo by Kawada (later popularized in the US by Samoa Joe). Kawada goes for a suplex, but in a reversal of earlier, this time Kobashi lands on top of Kawada and gets a two-count. Yakuza kick/lariat to the back of the head/gamengiri kick combo by Kawada. Kobashi staggers but doesn’t go down. The man’s a freaking tank. BACKDROP DRIVER! Kobashi gets planted on his head and neck! Kawada pins. Kobashi kicks out at 2.9!
Kawada goes for a powerbomb but Kobashi resists, so Kawada step and ax kicks him some more. Kawada succeeds with the Folding powerbomb but Kobashi kicks out at two. Kawada lands more face kicks and after tons of resistance from Kobashi, lands a second folding powerbomb for another two-count. Stretch Plum by Kawada. Kobashi reaches the ropes. Kawada tries to pull Kobashi away from the ropes but Kobashi resists so Kawada soccer kicks his back really hard. And then lands a second Backdrop Driver! Stretch Plum once again. Kawada twists Kobashi in horrific ways. Kobashi looks like he’s fading. Kawada pins. But somehow Kobashi kicks out.
Kawada goes for another powerbomb and after a tense back-and-forth, Kobashi powers out. But Kawada’s quick to drop him with a yakuza kick. Over and over, each time Kobashi tries to fight back Kawada drops him with kicks. Kawada lands another corner yakuza kick and then kicks the hell out of Kobashi some more. He’s just mocking Kobashi at this point. But Kawada goes for one kick too many as Kobashi catches his leg and lands a dragon screw leg whip. Looks like I got what I was asking for. Kawada goes for a running kick (but moves much more slowly now and therefore has less power behind that kick), and Kobashi answers with a short-range lariat for two. Kobashi slams Kawada and lands some leg drop variations and goes for the moonsault, but Kawada rolls to safety. They chop each other again and Kobashi lands a STIFF rolling chop to Kawada’s neck. Jackknife powerbomb. Kawada kicks out. Powerbomb. Diving moonsault, Kawada kicks out again. The crowd is going absolutely INSANE! They’re completely behind Kobashi and everything he’s doing.
Kobashi goes for a lariat but Kawada answers with two spinkicks. Kawada tries to maintain control with more yakuza kicks, but gets too cocky when he goes for a gamengiri because Kobashi blocks it. LARIATO! What impact! Kawada slowly gets up but has no idea where he is. He staggers around and somehow manages to land a desperation gamengiri kick out of nowhere. But Kawada’s in worse shape than Kobashi and Kobashi crawls over for a pin and gets a two-count.
Both men get up and trade stiff strikes once again. Kobashi gains the upper hand but Kawada counters into a cross armbreaker. Amazing counter. Even if Kawada doesn’t win with that, at least he’ll weaken Kobashi’s lariat arm. Kobashi reaches the ropes and gets thunderous applause from the crowd. Kawada lands more kicks and Kobashi answers with yet another lariat. Both men go down and this time Kobashi’s clutching his arm, unable to capitalize on what he just did. Both men get up slowly and Kobashi charges to the corner. Kawada blocks him twice, ducks a third charge and lands another Gamengiri kick. Kobashi staggers around the ring but manages to land yet another running lariat. He crawls over for the pin. One, two, thr—no, Kawada kicks out. Kobashi pulls a barely-conscious Kawada to his feet. BURNING LARIAT! Kawada goes flying end over end!
One, two, three! That’s it! Kobashi beats Kawada! And he has become world champion!
Winner and NEW AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 33:49: Kenta Kobashi
HELL YEAH! That was AWESOME! What a spectacular main-event-level match. Once again, Kobashi showed why he is the god of pro wrestling and Kawada showed just how much of a beast he was in this thirty-three-minute epic. This match had it all: an unbelievably-electric crowd that was fully engaged in the match, unpredictable twists and turns, crazy stiffness that made both guys look like they were made of iron, and an intense and frantic finishing stretch. And course, the satisfaction of seeing Kobashi finally pin Kawada in a big singles match. A decade of trying culminated here with both a critical win and a new champion.
There are many reasons I keep revisiting these AJPW classics, and one of those is pacing. These AJPW classics are, by and large, slower than most modern wrestling matches, especially in NXT and modern NJPW. The match sort of drifts into that ‘sprint-recover-sprint-recover’ pattern towards the end, but that gets lost in the atmosphere and incredible selling that both wrestlers demonstrated through most of the match.
And once again, these wrestlers showed what great realistic selling looks like. At one point, Kobashi landed a knee lift to Kawada’s gut and tried to whip him into the ropes right away. In almost any other wrestling company, the wrestler being whipped would run into the ropes as expected. But that wasn’t the case here. Instead of running as expected, Kawada slumped down and sold the knee strike to the gut like it was something serious. Suddenly it felt like this was ‘a break in the script’ because it looked and felt real and it forced Kobashi to do something different. Maybe that was part of the plan the whole time, or maybe it was a bit of improvisation. Either way, it added even more realism to the match and legitimacy to both wrestlers’ striking abilities.
I also really enjoyed how both wrestlers tried different strategies throughout the match. Kawada spent most of the match trying to keep Kobashi down by hitting him as hard as he could and trying to exhaust him with high-impact suplexes and powerbombs. But when those approaches failed, Kawada resorted to an MMA-style armbar to try and go for a sudden submission finish. This made sense on three levels: 1) it would weaken Kobashi’s arm and would allow Kawada to possibly survive a lariat from Kobashi; 2) it was timely because MMA was really kicking off in Japan at the time and the armbar was a common and incredibly over move; and 3) Kawada had beaten Kobashi by submission back in 1993 and Kobashi was desperate to get past that. If Kawada did it again, it would only embarrass Kobashi that much more.
As for Kobashi, he kept things incredibly simple by attacking Kawada’s neck as much as possible. From the early headlocks, to spamming chops to the neck, to all the powerbombs, suplexes, leg drops and so forth, Kobashi did whatever he would to weaken that one body part enough to land one finisher that could conceivably keep Kawada down long enough for the three-count. It’s that simplicity that really helps this match stand out. Yes, most people see a match like this and focus on the raw brutality and the insanity of the head spikes. But those things were expressions of a simpler logic: Kobashi had a finisher that targeted Kawada’s neck, he knew Kawada was tough-as-nails and needed to weaken that neck as much as possible, and he stuck to that strategy without faltering.
At first I thought it didn’t make sense for Kobashi to ignore Kawada’s legs considering many of their past big matches saw him attack them to make it easier for him to win and survive. Then I realized it wasn’t necessary. By tanking Kawada’s unrelenting kicking offense at full power, it made the already-tough-as-nails even tougher. Many of their past matches told the story of Kawada constantly shutting Kobashi down each time he made and headway. This match marked the peak of that story with Kobashi finally overcoming Kawada at his strongest and proving he was better than Kawada.
And once again, these two wrestlers put on such a fantastic display of ‘layering’ moves on top of each other. Everything they did made sense in this match. There were so many high-impact moves done to weaken one wrestler the other to the point that, by the twenty-minute mark, anything, even the simplest strike, could’ve ended the match and it would’ve made perfect sense.
In the end, these two wrestlers left the match looking like nearly-indestructible monsters, and to me, that’s something that seems to have been largely forgotten in the modern wrestling landscape. Everyone these days wants to showcase their athleticism and agility, but very few actually try to come across as tough badasses. That’s why matches like this one – and a modern variation of 1990’s King’s Road AJPW like Walter vs. Ilja Dragunov – stand out way more than the countless matches we see nowadays that emphasize flips and daredevil acrobatics over toughness and simplicity. Personally, I think that if more of today’s wrestlers fought like Kawada and Kobashi did here, they’d have a better chance of standing out and possibly capturing outside fans, simply by demonstrating the sort of ‘how-can-he-survive-that’ sort of toughness that isn’t seen as much these days.
Final Rating: *****
I think this match was MUCH better than what the Observer rated it originally. And while it’s not quite at the same level as Kobashi’s legendary trio of singles match with Misawa from 1997 to 1999, or Kawada’s mythical singles match with Misawa from June 3rd, 1994, this is still a tremendous match that’s really worth watching in its entirety.
This was a hardnosed, brutal war of attrition between two of the toughest pro wrestlers to ever live. It told an amazing, back-and-forth story between two wrestlers that jockeyed for control from bell to bell. There wasn’t a single point in the match at which one wrestler’s victory was a foregone conclusion. Kawada and Kobashi put on such a tense-nail-biting match that it left you guessing where and how the match would end. And while the match does have a few slower moments, those are buoyed by intense back-and-forth stretches that more than make up for any downtime.
As a standalone contest, this match is simply outstanding. And the larger story is but the icing on the cake here, adding some extra satisfaction onto the match itself. Highest recommendation possible.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.