(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Toshiaki Kawada vs. Kenta Kobashi - AJPW October 23rd, 1993

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Toshiaki Kawada vs. Kenta Kobashi - AJPW October 23rd, 1993

The best pro wrestling matches are those that tell their stories without words. If you can make an audience experience multiple emotional highs and lows during one match, you’ve succeeded as a pro wrestler. And if you manage to do that while also adding a whole new level of complexity and depth to the grand narrative you’re telling, then you’re not just a successful pro wrestler; you’re a masterful pro wrestler.

That’s what we have here. What would otherwise be dismissed as a throwaway match between two of All Japan Pro-Wrestling’s fabled Four Pillars of Heaven is actually one of the best examples of non-verbal storytelling in wrestling history. Let’s take a look at this classic match between wrestling legends Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi from October 23rd, 1993.

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

Earlier in 1993, Kawada turned heel by betraying his then-partner Mitsuharu Misawa and joined forces with Akira Taue. In doing so, Kawada went from being a #2 babyface behind Misawa to AJPW’s #1 heel and credible challenger for Misawa’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. And when Kawada left Misawa, Misawa elevated Kenta Kobashi – who had been a lower-level wrestler up to that point in big six-man tag matches – into his main tag partner. That elevation was Misawa’s way of telling people “Kobashi is no longer an underneath guy. I think he’s a big deal and so should you.”

And to prove Misawa right, Kobashi hoped to beat Toshiaki Kawada in singles competition. This was no small task. Kawada had a good six years of experience over Kobashi, and Kawada had beaten Kobashi in all fourteen of their previous singles encounters. So with this match, Kobashi hoped to both get revenge on Kawada for his ruthless betrayal and prove to people that he belonged in the same conversation as Kawada and Misawa. But the question was, could Kobashi do it?

The match

This match originally took place on October 23rd, 1993 and was rated ****3/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Looking back on it through a ‘modern’ lens, let’s see how this match holds up and if that original rating still makes sense today.

The bell rings and the crowd is split between both guys. Kobashi lands some big chops early and Kawada mostly does nothing. Then Kawada lands a sudden kick to Kobashi’s leg and they lock up properly. Neither man goes down on a shoulder tackle and then it’s Kawada who lands a chop. Kobashi answers those with a kick and a headlock but once more neither man moves off the shoulder tackle spot. Kobashi charges but runs into a high kick, tanks it like a boss, and finally knocks Kawada down with a shoulder tackle. an amateur exchange follows and Kawada wrestles into an armbar but Kobashi gets to the ropes right away. Kawada goes back to the arm and Kobashi tries to wrestle his way out. He eventually succeeds and applies a leglock. There’s some great psychology early on as Kobashi looks to weaken Kawada’s legs to weaken his trademark kicks. But Kawada’s just as smart because he does the same and applies his own leglock to take our Kobashi’s power game. Kawada appears to escape so Kobashi slams him and applies a single leg crab. Kawada escapes so Kobashi soccer kicks Kawada in the back. But that just makes him angry as he gets up and stares daggers at Kobashi. Kobashi answers with a bitchslap. Well Kawada’s already angry so it’s not like it matters. Kawada slams him and soccer kicks him back…in the back. Kawada fires away with stiff kicks all over Kobashi. Now Kobashi fires up by no-selling. Leg takedown. Figure-4 by Kobashi. Kawada resists by holding up Kobashi’s leg so the hold isn’t fully applied. Makes perfect sense and makes the move mean more. But that’s all in vain because Kobashi gets the hold in. Kawada fights and eventually gets to the ropes.

Kawada tanks through a flurry of kicks to his leg and then both men kick each other in the leg. Kawada wins this exchange and applies his own single leg crab and stomps on Kobashi’s head while doing so for extra pressure. Kobashi reaches the ropes with his other (free) foot so Kawada soccer kicks him again. Kawada chops and kicks Kobashi into a corner but Kobashi fights back and lands a running high knee into another corner. Kobashi Irish whips Kawada but Kawada reverses and lands a massive spinkick. Boston Crab. Kobashi escapes.

Kawada lands some kicks to the back and applies an abdominal stretch. Kobashi escapes so Kawada tries again and the two of them trade attempts at an abdominal stretch. Kobashi escapes with elbows and they have another intense staredown. Chop battle. Intense standoff. The crowd erupts in cheers. Kobashi wins the chop battle and lands a dropkick. Machine gun chops in the corner. He whips Kawada into a corner but Kawada has him scouted this time and blocks the high knee. Kawada smashes Kobashi’s head into two different corners. He goes for a jumping karate kick but Kobashi blocks and lands a DDT. He goes for another DDT but Kawada counters into an overhead suplex. Kawada tries to counter another one but Kobashi counters Kawada’s counter with a jumping DDT. These two know each other so well and it shows.

Kobashi slams Kawada and goes for the moonsault but Kawada dodges. Kawada lands a running big boot and Kobashi answers with a running lariat. Kobashi maintains control with a leg drop and goes for a second moonsault. But Kawada rolls away so Kobashi adjusts and lands a diving leg drop. Followed by a rope-assisted leg drop. All to Kawada’s neck. Scoop slam. Kobashi’s moonsault connects. Kawada narrowly escapes a three-count. Kobashi lands some kicks on the ropes that send Kawada out of the ring. Kobashi tosses him back into the ring right away but Kawada uses that momentary delay to pounce on Kobashi with step kicks to the head. Except Kobashi no-sells those like a boss. Kawada tries a chop and Kobashi kicks him right in the jaw. Kobashi goes for a suplex. Kawada lands on his feet behind him. Lariat to the back of Kobashi’s head. Both men collapse. Kawada pins. Kobashi kicks out.

Both men get up slowly and trade chops to the chest. Kobashi tries to retake control with chops to Kawada’s head, but Kawada answers in kind and drops Kobashi with one extra stiff head chop. Kawada lands machine gun chops to Kobashi’s neck and lands a running kick. He goes for a second but Kobashi kicks him first. Kobashi charges for a kick and Kawada blocks and charges. Double lariats. Both men go down.  Kawada gets up first. Big right hand. Gamengiri kick. Kawada kicks Kobashi so hard it looks like he may have hurt his own ankle in the process. A second gamengiri kick to the face. Kobashi escapes.

Kawada goes for an abdominal stretch but Kobashi resists, so Kawada switches to the Stretch Plum, which targets the neck. Kobashi fights incredibly hard and reaches the ropes. Kawada goes for it again but Kobashi tosses him off. Kawada lands more kicks and goes for a right hand, but Kobashi blocks and drops him with a stiff shot of his own. Sleeper hold by Kobashi. Kawada answers with a backdrop suplex. Kobashi doesn’t let go. Kawada tries to do the Bret Hart sleeper escape but Kobashi counters with a bodyscissors. Kobashi wrenches the hold as much as he can but Kawada reaches the ropes. Backdrop Driver by Kobashi. Kawada gets planted. A second one from Kobashi. Jackknife Powerbomb. Kawada kicks out again. Despite all that damage Kawada still kicks out.

Another sleeper hold from Kobashi. But this time Kawada answers with a much stronger Backdrop Driver than the one before. Kobashi goes for the sleeper yet again. Another Backdrop Driver.  Then another. That’s three Backdrop Drivers from Kawada. Folding Powerbomb. Kawada’s big finisher. He pins. One, two, thr—no, Kobashi kicks out. Everyone goes nuts for Kobashi’s will to survive.

Kobashi has no idea where he is. Kawada lands another Gamengiri kick. Backdrop Driver number FOUR from Kawada. He goes for another powerbomb. Kobashi literally kicks out. He lands multiple stiff strikes to Kawada’s face, and then lands a Backdrop Driver of his own. That’s four by Kawada and three by Kobashi. But both men are spent. Kawada gets to a pin first. Kobashi kicks out at one! Kobashi lands some defiant chops so Kawada stiffs him with more kicks. Kobashi goes for another Backdrop but Kawada elbows out and drops him once again with a stiff shot. Stretch Plum submission hold. Kobashi tries to fight out. Kawada tightens his grip. He contorts Kobashi as much as he can. The ref checks Kobashi’s arm. It goes limp right away. Kawada makes the pin. One, two, three! Kawada embarrasses Kobashi with a submission victory!

Winner by “submission” after 29:37: Toshiaki Kawada

Kenta Kobashi vs. Toshiaki Kawada - AJPW October 23, 1993

Review

That was another fantastic AJPW main-event style war. It was just under thirty minutes of great, simplistic wrestling mixed with insane stiffness and some crazy high-angle head-and-shoulder spikes that looked pretty rough. It wasn’t the most complex wrestling match, but it didn’t need to be. Kawada and Kobashi had a classic established veteran vs. rising star dynamic here, which was on full display with Kobashi’s incredible toughness and Kawada’s wily instincts. Kobashi tried to push force himself onto Kawada’s level by focusing on Kawada’s neck and weakening his legs, but he didn’t go far enough with that approach. Once Kawada began spamming Backdrops and doing for the Stretch Plum, Kobashi’s days were numbered and the only he could do at that point was last as long as possible and try to drag Kawada down with him.

And once again, Kawada showcased why he’s perhaps the best seller in wrestling history. Kawada had a knack for ‘delayed selling’ that very few wrestlers have shown. Even now, the overwhelming majority of wrestlers sell in either an overly-dramatic way, in a phony sort of way, or just don’t bother selling at all. Kawada sold like a boss for Kobashi here, especially when Kobashi landed some really hard strikes. Kawada sold like a man that had just taken a real hit and was trying to stay in control but the pain was too much for him to ignore and it caused him to lose focus, balance, or control of his own legs. And that manner of selling from Kawada made a world of difference here. He made this feel a lot more like a real fight, which only made the match more exciting. But even Kawada’s amazing selling and Kobashi’s iron will to win, both were secondary to the story of the match and the symbolism of the ending.

The reason I put ‘by submission’ in quotation marks above is because it wasn’t a submission win in the traditional sense. Kobashi never gave up, tapped out, or was ruled the loser of the match by the referee’s decision. Instead, Kawada applied a submission hold to the point that Kobashi was completely incapacitated and then scored a clean pinfall. But this still counted as a submission victory for Kawada because it was a submission hold that got Kawada the win. And that was especially embarrassing for Kobashi because AJPW’s promoter Giant Baba despised submission holds. It was extremely rare for a submission hold to ever lead to a fall in AJPW. Baba preferred traditional ‘pure’ finishers and strikes for that purpose, leaving submission holds being relegated to being used to ‘work’ or weaken a body part to lead up to the ‘real’ finishers. So for Kobashi to lose to a submission hold was especially embarrassing, and at the same time, it sold just how much Kawada had damaged him over the course of this match. It also made the Stretch Plum into a more credible finisher, which in turn added a whole new way for Kawada to credibly win a match.

That’s something that’s lost on today’s wrestling, in my opinion. Most wrestlers have one main finisher and MAYBE a second one that bust out in special matches. These AJPW wrestlers had four credible finishers, at least. And by going in that direction, they were able to accomplish two important things. First, they were able to keep viewers guessing on how the match would end, which in turn made them more excited and the matches themselves better. Second, it enabled them to tell better and deeper stories by using different finishers for different situations. As Al Snow once said, “For a false finish to be a false finish, the fans have to believe it’s the finish.”

Al Snow on Finishing Moves & False Finishes

With Kawada doing this, he was able to, as Snow put it, “have a gimmick to tell a story.” Kawada now had something new to end matches with, and the way he worked this match he made people believe his submission hold, which had led to nothing more often than not in the past, could now end a match. It added a new layer of unpredictability to Kawada’s matches, which in turn would lead to him having some of the best matches of his career (which is saying a lot considering what he accomplished during that golden decade of AJPW’s).

And yet, I don’t think this match has gotten any better or worse since it first happened. It’s still a great match by today’s standards, but it still has some flaws in it. The most notable one was the complete lack of selling the leg from both guys. They had made the leg submission holds such a key part of the opening part of the match. And yet neither man really incorporated that logic into the later part of the match. Kawada still spammed his kicks and ran a lot, despite one of his legs being weakened and having sold the danger of the Figure-4 leglock. And yet it seemed he forgot his own earlier work because all that seriousness around Kawada avoiding being locked in leg submission holds for too long was thrown out the window by the time the finishing stretch began.

And Kobashi was even more guilty than Kawada since he spammed leg drops, moonsaults and kicks of his own. I’ve seen matches from both guys in which they do a tremendous job of keeping things realistic and selling gradual limb damage as the match wore on. That wasn’t on display here to the same degree as in those other (read: better) matches.

Final Rating: ****3/4

After over twenty-five years, this match has aged pretty damn well. It isn’t good enough to reach that upper stratosphere of truly legendary matches, but hasn’t gotten worse with age, either. What this match lacks in airtight psychology and sheer excitement is made up for in great storytelling and a classical wrestling aesthetic. At no point does this match come across as ‘scripted’ or ‘rehearsed’. The entire thirty-minute match feels like a genuine struggle, and both men do an amazing job of making it look like they’re in real pain. And Kawada managed to create an entire new story by winning the match in an unexpected yet logical way.

If you like your pro wrestling stiff and realistic, you’ll enjoy this match. If your thing is seeing two badass hosses drop each other on their necks a lot, you’ll find plenty of that here. And if you like to see wrestlers showcase common sense, you’ll find plenty of that here too. By no means is it a GOAT-level match, but there’s still plenty to love here.

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