(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: 'Dr. Death' Steve Williams vs. Kenta Kobashi - September 3rd, 1994, by Alex Podgorski

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: 'Dr. Death' Steve Williams vs. Kenta Kobashi - September 3rd, 1994, by Alex Podgorski

Get ready for an epic hoss fight between two of the manliest and toughest wrestlers to ever set foot in a wrestling ring. This is for all those nostalgic wrestling fans longing for a better time in pro wrestling. A time when stories were centered on in-ring prowess, wrestlers looked and were badass, and matches felt less like displays of chaotic daredevil acrobatics and more like genuine fights.

Today we look at an epic rematch between ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams and Kenta Kobashi.

As a reminder, I am reviewing 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

Two months prior to this match, ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams did the seemingly impossible: he pinned Mitsuharu Misawa. In doing so, he ended Misawa’s 705-day reign as Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion and reached the top of AJPW.

And the move that brought him victory was the legendary Dangerous Backdrop Driver. Although many wrestlers copied that move, Doc’s was the most dangerous by far. It was so terrifying that when Doc so much as teased it, the crowd and the commentators would start losing their minds, thinking, ‘oh no, someone’s going to get hurt real bad’.

With Misawa dethroned (champions don’t have a rematch clause in AJPW), someone had to rise up to challenge Dr. Death. Enter the Ironman.

This is a very important match for Kobashi. One year prior almost to the day, Kobashi faced Williams in a #1 contender’s match and lost. In that match, he took an ungodly thrashing and came out of the match looking like the toughest man in the world. With this match, Kobashi hoped to both avenge his friend Misawa’s loss and also prove to the world that he could beat ‘Dr. Death’ in singles competition.

The match

This match originally took place on September 3rd, 1994 and is for the AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. It was originally rated 4.75-stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. The bell rings and they begin with some technical matwork. They go back-and-forth with this until Kobashi lands a rolling cradle for a two-count. But instead of betting mad, Williams nods in approval to Kobashi. It looks like he actually respects his opponent instead of being angry and wanting to kill him.

They have a nose-to-nose staredown and Williams asks Kobashi to join him in the test of strength. Kobashi happily obliges and we get the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. They go back-and-forth on this until Kobashi turns it into a rear double-arm hold, only for Williams to reverse that onto Kobashi. After another lock-up, Kobashi chops Williams but he absorbs it like a boss. Williams hits some chops of his own but Kobashi doesn’t move. Then Kobashi lands three more devastating chops and Williams is grinning. Wow, talk about badass.

Kobashi charges with a shoulder tackle, but Williams eats it like it’s nothing and starts hulking up Oklahoma-style. A second one drops Williams and Kobashi dropkicks him out of the ring as the cans applaud. Kobashi lands a DDT at ringside then slams him hard on the ringside mats. Then out of nowhere, Kobashi lands a diving crosbody from the turnbuckle to the floor. Holy crap what a ballsy move.

Kobashi tosses Williams into the steel barricade then drops a leg across the back of his neck. There some great psychology since most of Kobashi’s big moves target the neck. Kobashi lands a big vertical suplex for a one-count and cinches in a reverse chinlock at the ten-minute mark.

Kobashi throws Williams into a turnbuckle and hits more chops, but again Williams absorbs them. He takes three more without flinching until Kobashi lands a chop flurry to the neck that drops him. No one ever wins a chop war with Kobashi. No one. They trade stiff strikes some more until Kobashi lands a jumping knee in the corner for a two-count. After another chinlock, Kobashi slams Williams hard and lands a Hogan leg drop. He goes for a diving shoulder tackle, but Williams shoves him away at the last possible second. Then Williams responds with a vertical suplex that actually looks like a brainbuster. It’s hard to tell which one because in Japan they call every vertical suplex a ‘brainbuster’, even when the victim lands on their back.

Whatever it is, it’s enough to send Kobashi out of the ring. Williams continues his pursuit and drops Kobashi throat-first on the steel barricade. Another brutal move. He tosses Kobashi into the ring and gets a two-count. He shows his own mastery of ring psychology by applying a neck lock targeting that damaged body part and then a camel clutch. Then he lands another ‘brainbuster’ which looks like it dropped Kobashi on his upper shoulders. Another two-count for Williams.

Kobashi tries to mount a comeback with chops but Williams drops him with a picture-perfect spinebuster for a 2.5-count. Williams applies a bearhug but Kobashi fires back and charges, only to get locked into another bearhug. Damn, Williams must be insanely strong to be able to keep a 250-pound man in that position without so much as flinching. The damage is starting to build on Kobashi. He’s starting to falter, to lose strength. He slumps backwards and Williams pins his shoulders to the mat, but Kobashi gets back up. So Williams drops him with an overhead belly-to-belly suplex. All that work gets Williams another tow-count.

Williams charges with a football tackle but Kobashi reverses with a Giant Baba neckbreaker out of nowhere. Great counter. Kobashi tries to fire back with chops but Williams knocks him away. They trade more hard strikes and Kobashi charges with a kick. Williams blocks it and teases the Dangerous Backdrop Driver. But Kobashi immediately lands as many hard elbows as he can to escape. Because he knows how much that moves lives up to its name. DDT by Kobashi. Then another. Kobashi pins but only gets two.

We’re at the twenty-minute mark as Kobashi chops the hell out of Williams’ neck. Kobashi applied a sleeper then transitions into a sleeper-style neckbreaker for another two-count. Kobashi charges for a lariat, but Williams judo throws him away. But Kobashi’s back up right away. LARIATO!  Kobashi teases a Backdrop of his own but Williams fight out of it, so Kobashi dropkicks him. Then he lands a Backdrop, but it’s much weaker than Williams’.

Kobashi charges with a lariat, Williams blocks it, and drops Kobashi with a jab. But Kobashi gets up soon and drills Williams with another lariat. He pins but Williams kicks out at 2.75. Kobashi’s in full control as he lands multiple chops and leg drops to Williams’ neck. He even lands a sweet rope-hung leg drop that’s sort of reminiscent of the one the Undertaker uses. He pins but gets two. Kobashi tries another lariat, but Williams blocks it again and jabs back, but that only manages to piss Kobashi off. He lands a running kick, but Williams fires back with a huge charge out of nowhere. Kobashi charges again but walks into an overhead suplex. Williams whips Kobashi and then military presses him over the top rope to the outside at the twenty-five minute mark. What incredible strength.

Williams lands a shoulder tackle from the apron to Kobashi as he gets up. Williams tries to suplex Kobashi over the rope and into the ring but Kobashi fights back. Kobashi climbs the top rope but Williams cuts him off. Avalanche belly-to-belly. Then he follows with a Doctor Bomb! The ref counts one, two, thr—no, Kobashi kicks out at 2.9. Fantastic near-fall.

Williams teases the Dangerous Back Drop again but Kobashi quickly reaches the ropes to escape. Smart man. But Williams is still in control. He goes for the Oklahoma Stampede and smashes Kobashi into one turnbuckle, but Kobashi holds onto the ropes on the second one. Another smart move by Kobashi. Williams tries the same move but somehow Kobashi reverses it into a pinning predicament, only for Williams to kick out. Then Kobashi enzuigiris Williams and dropkicks him in the knee. Williams gets up first, but Kobashi lands a huge rolling back chop and another running neckbreaker. Kobashi slams Williams for the moonsault, but Williams gets up, only to eat a shoulder tackle.

We’re at the thirty-minute mark now as Kobashi lands a backdrop. He goes for a second one but Williams fights out of it. Kobashi strikes back with knees and a dropkick and lands a bridging German for two. The fans are on their feet exploding in cheers. They chant Kobashi’s name as he slams Williams down hard. He climbs the top rope. Diving Moonsault! He lands it perfectly. The referee counts one, two, thr—no, Williams kicks out. Another fantastic near-fall.

Kobashi lands more leg drops and goes for a second Moonsault but Williams escapes. He blocks one Kobashi dropkick but not a second as Kobashi dropkicks his knee. Williams rolls out of the ring, clutching his knee as he writhes in pain. As he tries to return to the ring Kobashi drops him with more hard chops. Williams gets up but eats a baseball l slide dropkick from Kobashi as soon as he gets close to the ring.

Kobashi tosses Williams back into the ring at the thirty-five-minute mark. He kicks him in the gut and attacks the neck with more leg drops. He even lands a diving leg drop after diving ¾ of the way across the ring. Man, Kobashi was such a beast back in the 1990s. he pins, but Williams somehow kicks out at 2.5. Where did that strength come from?

Kobashi signals the end and tries a vertical suplex but Williams fights out of it. So Kobashi drops him with a powerbomb for another two-count. Williams reaches the ropes to escape a backdrop from Kobashi, so Kobashi chops his neck some more. Then Williams comes charging with a football tackle like a bat out of hell. He reverses an Irish whip into a Stinger Splash and lands another overhead belly-to-belly. All of that gets Williams another two-count.

He teases the DBD again but Kobashi fights out in desperation once more. A Kobashi rolling back chop hits the top of Williams head, but Williams ducks the second one. Dangerous Backdrop Driver! Williams spikes Kobashi. Williams crawls to pin…but Kobashi kicks out! The madman survived the Dangerous Backdrop Driver!

We’re now at the forty-minute mark as these two gladiators are still fighting. Kobashi dropkicks the knee again but Williams knocks him away each time he tries to capitalize on that attack. Kobashi tries to attack some more, but Williams counters. Dangerous Back Drop Driver into the turnbuckle! Damn, Kobashi got spiked yet again.

Kobashi’s moving around on auto-pilot. He has no idea where he is. then Williams lands a third one! A third DBD! The referee counts one, two, and three! There’s the match.

Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 41:23: ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams

Kenta Kobashi vs. Steve Williams (AJPW 9/3/94)

The video I included above ends shortly after the final bell, but it omits two important things. I managed to find the entire match and post-match segment in the link below, which is a ten-hour compilation of Kobashi’s Triple Crown title matches (which, incidentally, includes some of the other legendary 5-star epics we’ve already look at in this series).

If you skip to the 50:00-mark in that video, the post-match segment begins. Doc approaches an exhausted Kobashi and shakes his hand. Then they actually hug in an impressive display of sportsmanship and bow to each other. But as Kobashi prepares to leave, Doc holds him back and says ‘one more time, you and me’. He has so much respect for Kobashi that he wants to go to war with him once again.

Then, Doc has a post-match interview with the Japanese wrestling press. In one minute, he manages to put over Kobashi as a monstrous threat, himself as the most dangerous man in the company, and AJPW’s product as the most legitimate athletic style in pro wrestling. Here’s his promo verbatim, in broken, simplified English done for the foreign press:

“Very tough. Every, every, every time I fight Kobashi, very tough. Maybe HE #1 challenger. Again, one more time. But one more time…Dangerous Backdrop. Maybe DIE next time! No one, no one take Dangerous Backdrop. Everybody, everybody try to do Backdrop. But Dr. Death’s most dangerous. Everybody try, every wrestler try to do same. Nobody copy (points to self).” – ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams

Kobashi Kenta Triple Crown History

Review

I thought this match was simply fantastic. Just awesome all around. It featured an easily understandable story between two incredible athletes. On one hand, Williams showed his utter dominance and how dangerous he was as a wrestler. On the other hand, Kobashi played the gutsy underdog that didn’t give up until the very end. And this played very well into continuing the story that had been established a few months prior in July when Dr. Death dethroned Mitsuharu Misawa for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Title. That was considered a remarkable feat, especially since Misawa’s reign was so long and filled with so many epic matches.

So Kobashi more than had his hands full. If had to bring out his A-game if he wanted any chance of beating Dr. Death. But the big Oklahoman was too much for the younger and smaller Kobashi. Kobashi chopped him in the chest several times and Dr. Death barely so much as winced. He absorbed Kobashi’s offense like it was nothing, creating more urgency and desperation in Kobashi. Kobashi tried attacking Dr. Death’s neck with chops and guillotine leg drops, but it wasn’t enough. Not even trying Dr. Death’s own signature move – the Dangerous Backdrop Driver – could keep him down.

But Kobashi was as valiant as Dr. Death was merciless. Just like in match from the year prior, it took three consecutive Dangerous Backdrops – including one into the turnbuckle – to keep Kobashi down. Although Kobashi lost, he came out of the match looking like one of the toughest men alive.

But the nonstop action wasn’t this match’s only great attribute. What I also liked here was that Doc wasn’t trying to get under Kobashi’s skin or be a prototypical foreign menace. Instead, this match centered on Williams begrudgingly respecting Kobashi for having so much determination. Williams demolished Kobashi yet Kobashi just kept coming. The usually villainous Dr. Death had no choice but to recognize and respect Kobashi’s iron will to win.

Then in his post-match promo, he put over Kobashi as a man so tough that he (Doc) would have to literally kill him if they fought again. Sure, that’s a clear case of a wrestler exaggerating. But the way Doc spoke, he made it a very convincing exaggeration. And judging by the overall wrestling style of King’s Road All Japan, many of these wrestlers (including both Kobashi and Williams) looked like they could’ve died at any time during the 1990s, that’s how intense and brutal their style was.

Final Rating: *****

I think this is a perfect wrestling match because it has such a great athletic story. This was a war between two evenly-matched tough-as-nails sonsofbitches. It’s a long endurance contest – which was typical of a 1990s Kobashi match – but it doesn’t drag on or get boring at any point. Yes, they have their moments of lying down, selling exhaustion, but those segments help sell the story these two are telling. But that only adds to the gravity of the situation both wrestlers find themselves in.

They also succeeded once again in doing something special here. They didn’t just get the challenger (Kobashi) over as the never-say-die underdog hero in peril. They didn’t’ just make Dr. Death Steve Williams into one of the most convincing badasses in wrestling history. They also managed to get a single move – the Dangerous Backdrop Driver – over as the most horrifying move in the world. That takes an incredible level of skill and understanding of wrestling storytelling to pull off, but they succeeded here.

Though I wouldn’t say it’s on the same level as their 1993 encounter, it’s still an awesome match all the same.  Save the link to the match if you can.

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