(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kenta Kobashi vs. Hiroshi Hase – AJPW, August 26th, 1997
It’s said that the mark of a truly great professional wrestler is their ability to have a great match with anyone and everyone. When two wrestlers compete against each other for the first time, you want to see them mesh so well that you’d think they had hundreds of matches together.
That’s what we have with this match. It was the first time two wrestlers faced off and it was tremendous. The two wrestlers involved had such tremendous chemistry and put on something special. This is, without a doubt, one of the best technical matches I have ever seen, and now I want to share it with you, the dear readers of TJRWrestling.
Today we look back at the singles match between wrestling legend Kenta Kobashi and wrestler-turned-politician Hiroshi Hase.
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.
Hase entered politics in July 1995 as a member of the Japanese Diet while he was still an active wrestler with New Japan. But unlike most others, not only is he still in office but his political career has been free of scandal and controversy. He is currently Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and has been in that role since 2015. Part of his success in politics stems from his reputation in wrestling; he’s known as one of the most selfless and respected wrestlers in Japan. In fact, when Hase jumped from New Japan to All Japan, instead of riding his wave of popularity and success to the top of the mountain and challenging for titles, he himself decided to start at the bottom and work his way up gradually just like anyone else.
Anyway, Hase had been a New Japan guy for almost a decade until his sudden departure in 1996. It stemmed from a scandal involving a young trainee in New Japan’s dojo dying from some injuries sustained during training. Hase was especially distraught because he had given the trainee’s parents his word that nothing bad would happen to him. So Hase left New Japan for All Japan and vowed to work his way up the card. Eventually, that led to him crossing paths with Kenta Kobashi.
This match originally took place on August 26th, 1997. It was rated **** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Looking back now, let’s see how well it holds up.
They lock-up and Kobashi powers Hase to the ropes and lands a chop. Hase fires back with a chop of his own and then they do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. Kobashi powers Hase down but Hase bridges, fights up, then counters with a hook kick. After another stalemate, Kobashi headlocks Hase but gets knocked down with a big shoulder block. On their next lock-up, Hase applies a hammerlock and grapples Kobashi to the canvas. He pushes Kobashi onto his shoulders for a pin but Kobashi pushes back. Hase goes back to Kobashi’s arm and fireman’s carries him into a short arm scissor but Kobashi counters with a bow and arrow hold. Hase rolls over into a pin for a one-count and takes Kobashi’s leg. He applies a Celtic knot-type leglock and Kobashi tries escaping by chopping Hase’s neck, so Hase traps both of Kobashi’s arms, turning the hold into a prison lock. Hase switches to focus on one arm but Kobashi escapes by punching Hase’s calf and then counters the leglock on Hase. Hase counters that and starts chopping Kobashi’s chest, but Kobashi just absorbs them and asks for more. He tries chopping Hase but Hase quickly regains control and applies a deathlock on Kobashi’s legs. Hase then switches to a Muta Lock but Kobashi somehow crawls to the ropes to get a break.
Hase goes for another leglock but Kobashi tries blocking by applying a cross armbreaker. Kobashi tries breaking Hase’s grip with all his might, only for Hase to escape by bridging over and flipping backwards. I’ve never seen a cross armbreaker countered like that. Hase goes for another leglock but Kobashi gets a clean break on the ropes and starts chopping again. Hase hits back and they go back-and-forth until Hase kicks Kobashi’s knee. Then Hase starts targeting both of Kobashi’s legs with various stomps and holds, including some kind of cross-legged STF. Hase switches to the rear double-arm stretch but Kobashi reverses it onto Hase. Hase tries reversing it back but Kobashi’s just too strong so Hase escapes via drop toehold and goes back to the legs.
Kobashi gets a ropebreak so Hase starts hitting him while he’s down. That angers Kobashi so he chops back and hits a double kneelift. Despite some discomfort in his leg, Kobashi hits a delayed vertical suplex and pins for a two-count and then applies a chinlock. Hase escapes via jawbreaker and applies another strange hold. He basically sits on Kobashi’s neck pushing his head forward while pulling one of Kobashi’s legs in the opposite direction, and then switches around to stretch both of Kobashi’s shoulders at once. Then Hase decides to try chopping Kobashi. Big mistake. Kobashi lands a massive chop of his own followed by a spinkick. He goes for an Irish whip but Hase counters with a Russian leg sweep. Hase goes to the top rope but Kobashi cuts him off. Despite Hase’s best efforts at resisting, Kobashi lands a superplex and gets a two-count. Kobashi goes for a Boston crab. Hase counters by bridging onto his neck, spinning around, and monkey-flipping Kobashi across the ring. Wow. Kobashi tackles him back to the mat and decides to steal one of Hase’s signature moves. Kobashi lands a six-revolution giant swing and stops early due to his legs giving him more trouble. He takes a few moments to regain feeling in one knee and charges for a lariat. But that moment allows Hase to recover. Hase ducks the lariat and lands an uranage. Hase follows with a giant swing of his own that gets thirteen revolutions. The crowd gives him a loud ovation.
Hase lands some chops and goes for a suplex but Kobashi resists and counters with his own. But Hase counters that, lands behind him, and dropkicks his knee twice. Kobashi staggers as Hase charges and hits a running kneebar/heel hook. Kobashi writhes in pain as the crowd chants his name. He eventually gets a ropebreak so Hase goes for a sharpshooter. Kobashi tries to stop him with chops to the face but Hase absorbs them, taunts Kobashi, and hits back with his free hand. Hase steps over for the sharpshooter. Kobashi counters with an ankle lock complete with leg grapevine. Hase pulls himself and Kobashi forward and gets a ropebreak.
Kobashi walks slowly as he stomps on Hase. He goes for another ankle lock but Hase uses his free leg to kick Kobashi’s knee. Despite the pain in his own leg, Hase locks in the sharpshooter. Kobashi uses his upper body strength to push forward but sinks down inches away from the rope. Hase walks them both away from the ropes and sits deeper, tightening the hold. Undeterred, Kobashi pushes forward and gets a ropebreak, only for Hase to lock in a Figure-4 leglock right afterwards. But Kobashi rolls over and reverses the hold on Hase. No, Hase rolls over and regains control for a second as Kobashi gets another ropebreak.
Both wrestlers roll out of the ring and start trading chops to the chest. Hase goes for a slam but Kobashi counters and slams Hase instead. Kobashi goes for a powerbomb on the ringside mats but his leg gives out and Hase counters into a senton press. Hase tosses Kobashi into the ring and lands a diving dropkick. He goes for the Figure-4 leglock again but this time Kobashi blocks with his hand to prevent the hold from being locked in fully. He tries and tries but Hase breaks him and locks in the Figure-4 fully. Kobashi pulls them in one direction towards the ropes but Hase pulls back. Kobashi rolls over to reverse the hold and then gets a ropebreak. The referee has to pull their legs apart as Kobashi looks to have done more damage to himself on those reversals.
Kobashi clasps his leg as Hase stomps on it. Hase kicks Kobashi’s bad knee as Kobashi kicks him with his good leg until Kobashi fights up to his feet. They trade chops again. Kobashi can barely stand without the ropes but he still powers up and hits stiff chops. Hase counters an Irish whip and lands a stungun on the ropes followed by a running bulldog. Bridging dragon suplex. Kobashi kicks out. Hase tries that same move again. Kobashi counters with a half-Nelson suplex. Both wrestlers collapse. Kobashi crawls over to pin but Hase kicks out at 2.5. Kobashi hits more chops and charges at Hase in a corner but Hase kicks Kobashi’s weakened left leg. he gets Kobashi down to one knee and goes for another uranage but Kobashi blocks so Hase just pushes forward and pins for another two-count. He tries another uranage. Kobashi blocks with kneelifts and hits a DDT. Kobashi starts his comeback with a giant Baba-style neckbreaker. He slams Hase, hobbles across the ring, fights through immense pain, and lands a Hogan leg drop. And then he goes to the top rope. But before he can dive Hase gets up and kicks the back of his leg. Hase cuts him off completely and lands a second-rope backdrop suplex. Bridging arm-trap northern lights suplex. One, two, thre – NO, Kobashi kicks out at 2.99! Hase tries again. Kobashi blocks with knees and a DDT once again. Hase hits a trio of high kicks to Kobashi’s face and then goes to the top rope. Kobashi cuts him off with a head-butt and an avalanche Samoan drop. Kobashi follows with not one but two powerbombs. Jackknife cover. Hase kicks out at 2.99 this time! Kobashi charges for a lariat. Hase blocks and tries an uranage. Kobashi blocks that and hits an enzui lariat to the back of Hase’s head. He follows with three rolling chops to Hase’s neck. RUNNING LARIATO! One, two, three! There’s the match!
Winner after 32:49: Kenta Kobashi
HELL YES! That match was amazing. It was without a doubt one of the best technical wrestling matches of the past thirty years. It was both realistic and entertaining. There was no over-the-top theatrics or unnecessary acrobatics. Instead, it was pure wrestling mixed with an easy-to-follow story. It was refreshing to see a more simplistic match in an era defined by vicious head spikes and dangerous strikes.
The story was that Kobashi, a hard-hitting All Japan tank, was taken out of his comfort zone by Hase, who was a superior amateur grappler and submission specialist. In a refreshing twist, the style difference between Hase and Kobashi didn’t cause any problems; in fact, Hase was able to bring his realistic and submission-focused strong style into the narrative-driven world of King’s Road All Japan successfully. By going in a different direction from what All Japan typically showcased, Hase and Kobashi were able to have a unique match that still told a tremendous story. Instead of focusing on high-impact bombs, head spikes, and layers upon layers of finishers, this match was built on traditional psychology. Hase out-grappled Kobashi whenever he could and constantly went after Kobashi’s arms and later his legs. And while that approach has been a staple of Kobashi matches for years, few wrestlers have focused on it as much or devoted as much time to it as Hase did here. He attacked Kobashi’s knees several times with some of the most creative yet logical wrestling moves ever seen. He kicked Kobashi’s knee whenever he could. He grappled out of Kobashi’s submission holds and went right back to Kobashi’s legs. Anytime he had control, he went to Kobashi’s legs to make his submission holds more effective and to render Kobashi helpless.
Because of Hase’s sound strategy, Kobashi had to fight from underneath from pretty much the opening bell. Hase out-grappled him and countered whatever he did, so he knew that his regular strategy was all but useless until Hase was in a weakened state. To get Hase to that point, Kobashi had to give Hase a taste of his own medicine, which came in the form of Kobashi going to the mat and working on his ground game more than ever before. As a result, Kobashi wrestled in a way that was very different. He stayed on the mat and wrestled a more technical style. Instead of relying exclusively on drawn-out strike exchanges and power-based bombs, he used quick counters and submission reversals to surprise Hase when he could. And to really get in Hase’s head, Kobashi did his best to show he could be just as good a submission wrestler as he was a striker and physical hoss. And in the end, that’s exactly what Kobashi did. He survived all of Hase’s technical wrestling and submission work. He showed he could hang with a technical grappling master and lock in his own deadly submission holds. But most importantly, he still managed to win despite the overwhelming challenge that lay before him. Once all was said and done, that’s what was most important. Kobashi and Hase told an outstanding story based on the simple concept of both wrestlers wanting to win and taking different avenues to get to that goal.
But it wasn’t just about Kobashi here; Hase got over as well. He survived Kobashi’s vicious chops and went the distance in an intense 30-plus-minute match. It was rare for his matches to be that long in New Japan and the matches in All Japan tended to be much more brutal in general. And yet, Hase looked completely at home here with Kobashi. He took to the King’s Road style like a fish to water and wrestled as smoothly as ever while doing a great job of wrestling in a more ‘story-driven’ way as opposed to the more straight-laced and shoot-inspired New Japan way that he had prior.
But as much as I want to call this a 100% perfect match and rank it among the best of the best, it wasn’t flawless. The only reason for that is because both guys stopped the legwork randomly towards the very end and suddenly and started trading bombs. Everything was so airtight and psychologically-sound for 90% of the match and then it was all abandoned in favor of trading bombs. While it sort of made sense because both wrestlers were desperate (which in turn made this already exciting match even more so), it was a bit of a letdown, especially as both guys started relying on their legs so much at the end. Sure, both wrestlers were both sluggish at that point. And yet, the sense of realism and legitimacy began to dissipate faster once both guys starts jumping, kneeing each other, and running the ropes. It would’ve been a slight bit better if both wrestlers (but especially Hase) kept the same logical progression and rely less on kicks and dives.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Even though this match isn’t 100% perfect, I cannot sing its praises enough. This is without a doubt a must-watch match for so many reasons. The wrestling is awesome. The tension is off the charts. The crowd makes so much noise that is legit sounds like an earthquake in the venue. The match built up so incredibly well that anything, anything could end the match once they reach the finishing stretch.
This is a match that doesn’t just deserve to be re-watched; it should be studied. Hase came in to make Kobashi look like an even bigger deal and succeeded. Kobashi had his own wrestling style which also meant he had weaknesses that could be exploited. Hase did exactly that and came incredibly close to scoring a big win over the All Japan legend.
There’s something especially entertaining in seeing a wrestler with a pre-established style and psychology forced out of his comfort zone and forced to adapt. Imagine Kurt Angle in a hardcore match against Sabu, The Undertaker in a submission match against Bret Hart, or Bryan Danielson stuck in the ring against an absolute monster. The hero is clearly disadvantaged yet he still managed to not only win but beat his opponent at their own game. That’s the kind of satisfaction you get with this match. I cannot recommend it enough.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.