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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kenta Kobashi’s Return From Cancer (Dec. 2, 2007)

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This is one of the most emotionally-charged matches I have ever seen in my life. That isn’t because it had some deep angles. Or because the wrestling was game-changing. Or even because it had a great inner story. It’s so emotional because it marked Kenta Kobashi’s return to Pro Wrestling NOAH.

After beating cancer.

Not only does it have one of the loudest Japanese crowds I’ve ever heard, but it also features excellent wrestling for a match involving someone that suffered such immense stress on his body. To that end, let’s look back at the tag match between Kenta Kobashi & Yoshihiro Takayama and Mitsuharu Misawa & Jun Akiyama from December 2nd, 2007.

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

In 2006, Kobashi learned he had kidney cancer and had to leave to beat it. Now, cancer is awful and I truly empathize with anyone who either endured it or knows someone that has. Not everyone beats it, but hopefully, someday, it will join polio and other diseases as a thing of the past.

Sadly, the pro-wrestling world has seen its fair share of cancer diagnoses and luckily, many of them have led to survivals. I remember watching RAW in 2006 and learning that Roddy Piper was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and later recovered. A decade later, Bret Hart announced he had prostate cancer and beat it not long afterward. Then, of course, there’s Roman Reigns, who had leukemia in 2007, had it re-emerge in late 2018 and then he re-entered remission in early 2019. Reigns’ return was met with overwhelmingly positive reception and a standing ovation from fans, including those that had long hated him and his on-screen persona.

But back in 2007, there was nothing compared to Kobashi’s return.

Kobashi was a wrestler of mythic proportions in Japan. He was and is widely considered the single greatest wrestler to ever live and has legions of fans to this day. By 2006 he had already done pretty much everything and reached a point in his career that saw him start giving back to the industry in earnest. Then things took a tragic turn in June when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. His career was in serious jeopardy and few people thought he’d ever return. But Kobashi the person was just as tenacious and unyielding as Kobashi the wrestler. Kobashi beat cancer and in December 2006 announced that he’d return to wrestling ‘without fail’.

But returning to the ring wasn’t as simple as that. His cancer treatment had taken an extensive toll on his body and returning to ring shape would be a grueling and arduous journey. Besides, Kobashi was nothing if not an overachiever. He always gave his matches 110% and wanted to live up to those expectations even after this major ordeal. To do that, he had to regain his strength and rebuild himself up in a major way.

It took almost a full year before Kobashi would actually step into a wrestling ring for a match. He announced his return in September 2007 and by December 2nd he was ready to go. Budokan Hall – the famous martial arts arena synonymous with Kobashi and both NOAH and AJPW – sold out almost instantly. But Kobashi wasn’t returning just to make a public appearance. He wanted to show the world that he could still wrestle despite being down a lot of energy and an entire kidney.

Not only that, but Kobashi’s return match would see him in important company. He would be teaming with Takayama, one of the toughest men in NOAH (which is saying a lot) and a man with whom Kobashi had not one but twotremendous singles matches with before. As for his opponents, they were two people with whom Kobashi might as well have been joined at the hip. Misawa was the Emerald Emperor, the founder of NOAH, and a man that Kobashi spent over a decade either teaming with or competing against. His other opponent was Akiyama, who was to Kobashi what Kobashi was to Misawa: a younger wrestler desperate to strike out on his own and surpass the older legend. While Kobashi was battling cancer, these three men were the biggest draws for NOAH. Misawa had once again become GHC Heavyweight Champion despite severe wear-and-tear on his body and Akiyama was somewhere close by in status. Meanwhile, Takayama had proven himself a reliable hand for almost any situation, even if he was more a freelancer than a NOAH loyalist.

So with all of those factors at play, could Kobashi do it? He managed to no-sell cancer and give it a Burning Hammer, but could he bounce back and wrestle against the best his company had to offer?

The match

This match originally took place on December 2nd, 2007. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and with this match Kobashi earned a special ‘Comeback Award’ for 2007 from Tokyo Sports and the ‘Fighting Spirit Award’ for 2007 from Nikkan Sports.

Akiyama comes out first and gets a loud pop. Then out comes Takayama and gets the same. Third is Misawa, who always got big pops no matter what.

And then, there’s the pop for Kobashi. The crowd noise during his entrance is absolutely insane. It’s Bret Hart at Canadian Stampede, Hogan at WMX8 or Steve Austin at Backlash 2000-level loud. This man stared death in the face and not only won, but came back to wrestling.

The fans chant Kobashi’s name in unison as the match is about to begin. Takayama wants to start for his team to build it up a bit but Akiyama has other plans. He points to Kobashi and Kobashi milks the crowd and decides to start. The bell rings and my…God is the reaction thunderous. Kobashi and Akiyama lock up and Kobashi lands a stiff chop to Akiyama’s chest. Akiyama headlocks Kobashi but Kobashi sends him into the ropes and hits another chop. Akiyama tanks it and charges but Kobashi blocks a jumping knee and tackles Akiyama down. After a short standoff, Akiyama tags Misawa and the crowd reacts bigtime. Boy do these two have history. Misawa hits an elbow but Kobashi tanks it like a boss. They lock-up again and have a chop/elbow exchange and then neither one budges on another shoulder tackle. Misawa hits back with a running elbow smash but Kobashi bounces back up and chops Misawa down.

They lock-up again and Takayama tags in. He and Kobashi hit an extended corner kick/chop combo on Misawa and then Takayama foot chokes him. Takayama applies a chinlock and then hits the point of his elbow on the bridge of Misawa’s nose for a one-count. After Misawa kicks out of the same thing a second time Takayama punts his spine Kawada-style. Misawa fights to his feet and wins an elbow exchange (because he always does) and tags Akiyama. Akiyama locks-up with Takayama and easily gets overpowered to the ropes. Akiyama hits a forearm and kneelift barrage and sends Takayama into a corner. He charges for another corner knee but Takayama shoves him down and hits a dropkick. Takayama hits another shoulder tackle and gets another one-count and then tags Kobashi. They hit double shoulder tackles on Akiyama and then Kobashi goes back to his classic chops. He lands double Irish whip kneelifts and then hits his downward Burning sword chop to the neck. Another falling chop gets Kobashi a two-count so he applies a chinlock with his knee in Akiyama’s back. Kobashi switches to a grounded cobra clutch and then throws Akiyama to the floor. Takayama whips Akiyama into the barricade and boots him over it and onto the announce table. Kobashi lands more nasty chops and then whips him into Takayama’s awaiting boot.

Takayama, now legal, covers Akiyama for a two-count in the ring. he punts Akiyama’s spine again and gets another two-count and then they begin another forearm exchange. This goes on for some time until Akiyama hits a jumping knee and tags Misawa. Misawa gets revenge for earlier with an elbow point to Takayama’s nose and then applies a facelock. Takayama literally kicks out and has another boot/chop combo attack alongside Kobashi in his corner. Kobashi tags in and hits another Burning Sword followed by some corner chops. Misawa reverses a corner whip and charges, Kobashi kicks first and goes for a diving shoulder tackle, but Misawa elbows him in midair first. Akiyama tags in and hits some running knees for a two-count. Kobashi tries hitting back but Akiyama demolishes him with kneelifts to the chest. Akiyama follows with a big running basement knee in the corner and the ref checks on Kobashi asking if he can continue. Naturally, Kobashi can and does, so Misawa tags in and hits elbows and jump kicks, followed by a senton splash for a two-count.

Misawa applies a facelock on Kobashi and Kobashi tries powering out but Misawa knees him in the back to break his resolve. Kobashi tries again and almost breaks the hold so Misawa knees him some more and tags Akiyama. Akiyama stomps on Kobashi but Kobashi starts hulking up. Kobashi fights to his feet and begins a chop/forearm exchange with Akiyama. Kobashi starts gaining the upper hand when Misawa elbows him from behind to a torrent of boos. That might be the first time in Misawa’s career that he actually got booed. Akiyama applies a grounded double-arm stretch but Kobashi breaks free so Akiyama tags Misawa. Misawa hits more stiff elbows but Kobashi starts hitting back with different chop variations. Kobashi gains the upper hand with lightning-fast chops to Misawa’s neck…until Misawa hits a barrage of quick elbow strikes and a rolling elbow smash. Down goes Kobashi. Misawa goes to the top rope but Takayama holds him in place. Akiyama goes after Takayama as Kobashi uses that distraction to land a superplex on Misawa. Hot tag to Takayama. Takayama boots both Misawa and Akiyama. He hits Misawa with a big corner dropkick/butterfly suplex combo for a two-count and has another strike exchange with Misawa. Takayama gets a kneelift in there and goes for his Everest German suplex finisher. But Misawa elbows out and drops Takayama with a running elbow smash.

Akiyama tags in and lands another running knee and knocks Kobashi from the apron. Takayama reverses a corner whip but misses a corner boot. He elbows out of a back suplex attempt but Akiyama blocks a kick and elbows his leg. Takayama elbows out of an Exploder suplex attempt, lands a stiff kneelift of his own, and goes for the Everest German again but Akiyama gets to the ropes. Takayama switches to a sleeper hold but Akiyama reaches the ropes again so Takayama back suplexes him. He tags Kobashi emphatically and Kobashi chops Akiyama into a corner. Kobashi’s all fired up as he lands machine gun chops in the corner. Akiyama yells at him to keep going and Kobashi does. Kobashi does his best to turn Akiyama’s chest into hamburger meat. And soon, Akiyama starts fighting really hard to not smile. I get the impression that two things are going through his mind at this very moment: “this hurts like always” and “it’s great to have you back, buddy”. The crowd goes absolutely apes**t as Kobashi lands around 128 consecutive chops to Akiyama’s chest. Followed by a rolling chop to Akiyama’s neck. Welcome back Kobashi, indeed. Everyone is cheering and applauding loudly. Even Takayama’s enjoying himself seeing Kobashi hit his big moves.

Kobashi lands another rolling neck chop but Akiyama reverses a corner whip. Kobashi boots Akiyama to block a charge and hits a Giant Baba running neckbreaker for a two-count. Kobashi goes for a half-nelson suplex but Akiyama elbows out. Kobashi goes for another follow-up rolling chop but Akiyama blocks it and tries an Exploder. Kobashi resists so Akiyama knees him in the gut and charges for a knee strike but runs into a sleeper hold. Then Kobashi lands a sleeper suplex. Now you know where WALTER got it from. Kobashi covers Akiyama but Misawa breaks it up. Takayama goes after Misawa and hits another stiff knee to Akiyama. Kobashi hits another neck chop as the camera pans to Tamon Honda, Kobashi’s regular tag partner, who wipes away tears as he calls the action. I feel you, man.

Misawa breaks up another pin so Takayama boots him to the floor and holds him in place there. That allows Kobashi to scoop slam Akiyama. And the crowd loses their collective minds. Because they know what’s coming next. DIVING MOONSAULT PRESS BY KOBASHI! One, two, and – no, Akiyama kicks out. Kobashi teases the lariat. Akiyama hits a pre-emptive elbow, blocks the lariat, and lands an Exploder suplex. That’s followed by a running knee and a tag to Misawa. Misawa elbows Takayama off the apron and hits another running elbow on Misawa. That’s followed by a Tiger Driver but it only yields a two-count. Misawa charges again. Kobashi hits first with a chop. Misawa hits a one-two elbow combo as a callback to their epic in 1998. Kobashi blocks a follow-up rolling elbow and lands a half-nelson suplex. Misawa bounces back up and hits a running elbow smash. LARIATOOO! Takayama boots Akiyama to stop any interference. Kobashi struggles to get up so Takayama helps him with an Everest German suplex on Misawa. Takayama then shoots Misawa right into Kobashi’s waiting arm. Another LARIATO! One, two, Akiyama makes the save!

Takayama takes Akiyama to the floor as Kobashi places Misawa on the top turnbuckle. Dear God, he’s going for the Burning Hammer. Misawa holds onto the top rope so Kobashi chops him to break his resolve. Kobashi manages to get Misawa onto his shoulders but Misawa escapes at the last second and hits some back elbows. Akiyama escapes from Takayama and hits another knee strike. The crowd erupts in ‘KO-BA-SHI’ chants again as the twenty-five-minute mark passes. Kobashi tries fighting off both Misawa and Akiyama with chops but their elbow/knee combo proves too much for him. Akiyama connects with an Exploder suplex and knocks Takayama back to the floor. Misawa hits a successful running elbow smash. Akiyama holds Takayama in place as the ref counts one, two, and – Kobashi kicks out! Kobashi’s still in this! Misawa hoists Kobashi onto his right shoulder…and drops him straight down. Emerald Flowsion! One, two, and thre – NO, Kobashi kicks out at 2.99! What a near-fall! Akiyama drops Takayama as Misawa perches himself on the top rope. Akiyama suplex lifts Kobashi up for Misawa and Misawa gets him in position. And Misawa dives. AVALANCHE EMERALD FLOWSION!

One, two, and three! There’s the match!

Winners after 27:07: Mitsuharu Misawa & Jun Akiyama

Post-match, as Misawa’s “Spartan X” music plays, it isn’t his name that’s chanted in unison like normal, but Kobashi’s. Fans are standing on their feet and some fans are openly crying for him. Kobashi eventually gets up and is met with loud applause and hugs from his partner and opponents. And even though the commentator is speaking only in Japanese, his voice is breaking over the emotional weight of the moment. After a group pose, Kobashi’s “Grand Sword” music plays and he’s given a hero’s welcome/sendoff. He’s given bouquets of flowers as a show of admiration and walks back like ever. Kobashi is back!

Review

I try my best to review all these matches objectively and without emotion, but I refuse to lie to you, dear readers, and say that I wasn’t getting misty-eyed during this match. And I’m not just saying that as a big fan of Kobashi’s. This match was both an emotional rollercoaster and a well-wrestled main-event wrestling match. Although Kobashi was much slower and more limited than before, he still put on an outstanding performance and fought competitively. In some ways, this was the perfect return match for any wrestler sidelined for an extended period of time.

First things first: I know some people might question the finish and how Kobashi lost his return match. But here it made sense; it was completely logical for Kobashi to lose this match. Despite the feel good atmosphere of his big return, NOAH was always big on realism and common sense. Even though Kobashi’s return from f**king CANCER was uplifting and inspiring, the reality was that he couldn’t be expected to be in the same overall physical condition as Misawa and Akiyama, both of whom were fully active while he was gone. And while Takayama was the right partner for Kobashi in that he was both strong and ludicrously tough in his own right, not even he could handle the combined efforts of both Misawa and Akiyama. This same philosophy of realism applied in 2002 when Kobashi was building for his big return following over a year off for multiple knee surgeries. Back then, Akiyama – who was the World Champion – vowed to relinquish his title if he lost to Kobashi since Kobashi was so rusty and he (Akiyama) had high expectations of and for himself as fully-active champion.

If Kobashi won this match, it wouldn’t be seen in the ‘correct’ light by the fans. Kobashi winning right after coming back would come across to the fans as a cheap cop-out. NOAH’s fans embraced NOAH’s dedication to realism with open arms and thus expected the same here. Sure, Kobashi lost, but the effort he put in here was more impressive than winning anyway.

As for the action itself, well, picture any one of Kobashi’s big matches up to 2006, only with the overall speed reduced to about 0.75x normal. The pace was slightly reduced, but the action wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before. It was typical King’s Road excellence with smart wrestling, lots of lightning-quick reversals, stiff strikes, and high-impact bombs. It also had its fair share of tag team chaos with lots of interference, but those moments were balanced with some logical sequences at the end that saw both sides try to isolate one wrestler by keeping a partner at bay or out of the ring altogether. For Kobashi, the centerpiece of the match, it was expected that the most he’d do is play the hits. But he went beyond that and did his best to show he was as good as he was before the cancer. He hit most of his biggest moves and even went above and beyond with a successful moonsault and a nearly-successful Burning Hammer. But he couldn’t overcome the fresher combination of Misawa and Akiyama. And in a rare sight, both of those guys actually got booed for wrestling with the same strategies as they had used many times before. Their interference spots were outright booed in a company that rarely got any booing to begin with. Such was the fans’ devotion to Kobashi and his will to fight.

But Kobashi wasn’t the only great wrestler here. Misawa did incredibly well for a guy well past his prime and riddled with injuries. He didn’t really fly around as much as he used do but when he played his biggest hits against Kobashi, their chemistry was off the charts as it had been for years. At the same time, much of the heavy lifting came from Akiyama and Takayama. Akiyama did most of the more complex spots and actual grappling while Takayama played the monster with brutal offense. They both hit incredibly hard and acted as foils towards the end to really build up the tension once Misawa and Kobashi were left alone together. And even when Kobashi wasn’t in the ring, the wrestling was great. There were plenty of tense and unpredictable moments that saw counter after counter, blocked moves, and hard strikes being tanked. All four of these men looked like total bosses for enduring so much punishment from each other. So even though the match was about Kobashi, the other three got to shine just as much.

Ultimately, the goal of this match was to show that Kobashi could still wrestle at a top level. It succeeded as Kobashi was pretty much the same as he had been since earlier in the decade. Sure he was slow, but he still did everything well. He hit hard. He sold in a realistic way. His facial expressions were great. He controlled and captivated the crowd. He took the same sorts of bumps as before. His offense was as smooth as it was before. He and his fellow wrestlers had tremendous chemistry together and created great wrestling sequences in the process. Plus, his opponents made Kobashi look just as strong as ever. It took so many bombs and some double-teaming to keep Kobashi down. It was as if he turned the clock back to his AJPW days when he was the underdog face-in-peril overcoming the odds. They had to pull out all the stops to beat him, and while he lost, he came across as tough and valiant as ever before.

Final Rating: ****1/2

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; these Japanese matches are so great because the stories are told in a way that doesn’t require understanding Japanese. The matches transcend language barriers and can be understood through the non-verbal actions and through vocal tones instead of through words themselves. Kobashi’s perseverance and unyielding spirit can be understood no matter one’s background.

Although the match’s action was a bit on the fanservice side, it was still outstanding. Kobashi came back from a life-threatening illness and more or less wrestled as if that never happened. But a big part of this match’s quality came from his partner and opponents, all of whom pulled their weight to make this into something special.

It’s refreshing to see a wrestler’s return from injury not be treated with kid gloves and be grounded in realism. Kobashi was a mythical wrestler but not even he could overcome the sustained efforts of two fully-active world class wrestlers like Misawa and Akiyama. But he tried and tried, and in the end, his struggle is what made this match as much of an emotional story as it was a well-worked athletic contest.

Could it have been better? Possibly. Kobashi was obviously worn down and so was Misawa. Akiyama did well enough to act as the workhorse (relatively speaking) and Takayama was somewhat limited due to his size and how he was booked. But let’s be real here. This was never meant to be a 5-Star historic epic. It was meant to be an emotional journey mixed with great wrestling. And those matches don’t need the highest critical rating to be memorable.

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.