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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kenta Kobashi vs. Stan Hansen – September 5th, 1996

kenta kobashi facing stan hansen

It’s time for a hoss fight. There are some matches that are great because they tell a deep and personal story. Others are great because the wrestlers involved display superhuman toughness or conditioning.

Others still are great because the wrestlers go to such insane lengths to win that they test the limits of what can be done in and around a wrestling ring.

And yet, sometimes the best matches are the simplest ones. At its core, pro-wrestling is, as Lou Thesz described, both an art form and a combat sport. And today we look back at a forgotten classic that did its best to display both of those things at the same time.

Today we look back at another great match between Kenta Kobashi and Stan Hansen.

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

Two months earlier, Kobashi won his first singles title by beating Akira Taue for AJPW’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. And since AJPW doesn’t believe in lazy booking concepts like ‘the automatic rematch clause’, Taue was not in a position to challenge the new champion. He had to earn that opportunity first. As for Kobashi, he more than had his hands full with his first title challenger: Stan ‘the Lariat’ Hansen.

This was a huge deal for Kobashi for two reasons. First, Hansen represented the old guard, the earlier generation, those that paved the way for him and his crew of rising stars to become the stars of the (then) present. As a rising star facing his first real test, Kobashi had to prove that he was better than Hansen and prove he was worthy of being champion. But this was no small feat. Despite being much older and slower (he was 47 at the time), Hansen was still seen as a legit threat. He still had this badass aura and maintained his fierce reputation for extremely stiff strikes. Hansen simply did not give a f**k about his opponents, and when he clobbered them they had to suck it up and worth through the pain. But there was another problem here as well: Hansen had history on his side. This was their thirteenth singles match together since 1990. And of their prior twelve matches, Kobashi had only managed to win two, but those were Champion Carnival matches and were largely seen as flukes. The remaining ten included one 30-minute draw, while Hansen won all the rest. So even though Kobashi was the world champion here, he had a major hurdle to overcome. Hansen was bigger, meaner and a harder hitter (if you can believe such a thing).

Thus the stage was set for one of the biggest matches of Kobashi’s career. He was unproven as a possible singles star, so he had to overcome any and every challenger that stepped up to him. In this case, he more than had his hands full with the legendary Stan Hansen. And so people started wondering. Would Kobashi be able to beat a man he had never beaten before outside of a round-robin tournament? Or would Kobashi’s reign as champion come to an end at the hands (arms?) of the most feared hitter in Japan, possibly even the entire world? There was only one way to find out.

The match

This match originally took place on September 6th, 1996. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s look back to see how it holds up.

This is for Kobashi’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Hansen tries to charge before intros are done but Kobashi sees him coming and hits first with chops. He gets Hansen against the ropes but Hansen head-butts him and throws him out of the ring. They go back-and-forth hitting each other extremely hard and Kobashi lands a corner dropkick, but Hansen lands a sudden elbow smash and Kobashi falls like a tree. Hansen punts Kobashi’s spine, but that only angers Kobashi into getting up. They trade stiff slaps. Hansen gets the upper hand and decks Kobashi and drops an elbow for a two-count. Kobashi fires up again and lands lots of chops and kicks, and even hits a few punches with gets him a warning. He goes for a suplex but Hansen blocks and counters with an armbar. Kobashi gets to the ropes but Hansen takes him letting go, but eventually releases the hold.

Hansen tries to take Kobashi’s leg but he fights back with chops. But Hansen tanks them like a beast and asks for more, which Kobashi obliges, only for Hansen to drop him with a one-two punch combo. Hansen applies a camel clutch but Kobashi powers through, gets to his feet, and lands an Ace Crusher to escape. A big chop sends Hansen into the 619 position, so Kobashi goes to the apron and lands a guillotine leg drop. Hansen falls to the floor, so Kobashi capitalizes by landing another guillotine leg drop, this time using the barricade. Kobashi drags Hansen to the ring and somehow manages to suplex him over the top rope into the ring. And people wonder how Kobashi’s knees got so bad. Kobashi pins but only gets two.

Kobashi picks Hansen up and lands a chop, but Hansen blocks a second and lands more stiff punches. Hansen unloads with kicks and elbow drops, and then lands more vicious elbows to Kobashi’s neck as he’s trapped in the corner. Kobashi falls back to the floor and Hansen suplexes him onto the mats. He eventually makes it back into the ring and lands more chops and punches to Hansen in the corner. Another volley of gut punches causes the referee to push Kobashi back as the camera zooms in on Hansen, who looks like he’s trying to pass a kidney stone. Kobashi stomps on him so Hansen takes him down by his legs, but that doesn’t stop Kobashi from giving Hansen those hands. Both men get to their feet again. Kobashi lands chops and kicks but Hansen no-sells King’s Road style. Kobashi lands a shoulder tackle. Hansen bounces back up and tackles Kobashi so hard he flies out of the ring. Kobashi gets to his feet outside the ring. Hansen dives through the ropes and onto him. Awesome. Hansen pulls the ringside aprons off and powerbombs Kobashi onto the floor. Sickening landing for the champion.

Hansen pulls Kobashi through the ropes and drops an elbow across his chest. Kobashi crumples to the floor so Hansen smashes him into the ringpost while cackling. He stops his own pin at one and continues brutalizing Kobashi with elbows and a DDT. He breaks up his own pin again to toy with Kobashi and lands an elbow, but this time Kobashi kicks out. More stiff punches from Hansen lead to another two-count. He tries a few more strike volleys and a falling elbow but Kobashi keeps kicking out. Hansen kicks Kobashi onto the apron and goes for a back suplex but Kobashi elbows out. Hansen answers with a boot that sends Kobashi into the ringpost. Hansen charges with a lariat…but Kobashi dodges. Hansen hits the steel post with all his might. Both men fall to the floor, with Hansen writhing in pain.

Hansen gets onto the apron and Kobashi goes right after his forearm with chops. He follows with a standing armbreaker and then dropkicks Hansen so hard he falls off the apron and into the barricade. Hansen gets back up but eats another armbreaker. Hansen staggers around the ring screaming in pain, to the point that the crowd starts chanting ‘Hansen’, even though he’s wrestling like a heel. He makes it back to the ring and starts trading kicks with Kobashi until Kobashi kicks his arm. Kobashi follows with a corner clothesline and more armbreakers. Then Kobashi rolls into a cross armbar, an MMA submission hold. Hansen squirms in pain as he gets to the ropes. Kobashi continues landing corner strikes (most of which are aimed at Hansen’s arm) until Hansen uses his free hand to elbow Kobashi on a charge. Hansen hits him so hard he collapses to the mat.

Hansen removes one of his kneepads and starts landing kneelifts to Kobashi’s head. He hits Kobashi so hard he might as well be in a real fight, but Kobashi remains standing (although he looks like his mind is elsewhere). More striking ensues. Kobashi goes to the top rope and despite Hansen’s best efforts, lands a diving neckbreaker. A diving dropkick gets Kobashi a two-count and he lands some leg drops to soften Hansen’s neck. Body slam. Kobashi goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault press connects. Hansen kicks out and then kicks Kobashi’s head. Kobashi answers with more leg drops. Hansen powers up and lands backhand blows with his good hand and Kobashi goes down. Then Hansen teases the lariat, in spite of all Kobashi’s armwork.

Hansen charges.

Kobashi hits first and kicks Hansen’s arm.

But Hansen uses that momentum to spin around. LARIAT connects!

One, two, thre – Kobashi survives. Kobashi kicks out at 2.99! Hansen can’t believe it.

Hansen ducks a clothesline and lands a back suplex for two. He teases another lariat. Kobashi ducks and lands a back suplex of his own. Hansen pops back up. Kobashi hits first with his own lariat. Kick-out by Hansen. Kobashi charges again. Hansen lands a boot. Kobashi runs back to the ropes. And connects with a second lariat. One, two, three! There’s the match!

Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 26:07: Kenta Kobashi

Post-match, Hansen can’t accept the loss and attacks Kobashi in a rare post-match attack. He grabs his cowbell and whacks Kobashi in the head with it from behind. The rookies are powerless to stop Hansen’s assault as he steals one of the three belts that make up the Triple Crown and whacks Kobashi with it. He returns the title eventually but leaves furious as Kobashi gets to his feet for his post-match celebration.

Review

What a brutal match. That was over twenty-five minutes of realistic and tense wrestling courtesy of two of the toughest men to ever enter a ring. What it lacked in technical grace or high-speed daredevil acrobatics it more than made up for in atmosphere and realism. It was fun as hell to watch, especially since it, like other matches of Hansen’s day, are so different compared to today’s wrestling landscape.

Hansen was the man in this match, no two ways about it. He hit Kobashi incredibly hard and absorbed a ton of punishment. There’s something different about Hansen that makes his matches really fun to watch. Even if other wrestlers are crisper in execution or more agile in the ring, Hansen matches come across less as wrestling matches and more like wrestling fights. His movements, body language and techniques all suggest that he’s hitting his opponents maliciously, even though he isn’t. That’s something that’s missing from today’s wrestling scene: most if not all modern wrestlers don’t make their attacks look convincing or realistic enough. You can tell that the match is scripted and there’s cooperation in the ring, and few wrestlers go out of their way to convince you otherwise. If Hansen wrestled in 2021 like he wrestled here, the internet would be flooded with comments and accusations that he was trying to injure his opponents for real. Of course, that’s exactly what Hansen intended here and he worked that gimmick perfectly. He knew he wasn’t as young or agile as Kobashi so he relied on raw power and it worked. He hit Kobashi so hard that it made Kobashi into the underdog from pretty much the beginning. That caused Kobashi to go to desperate lengths to keep Hansen down, including going for close-fisted punches, which were highly discouraged in All Japan. But Kobashi knew he had to go out of his comfort zone and risk getting both booed and disqualified if it meant beating Hansen. That’s how much of a threat Hansen was to him, especially since Hansen mauled him and managed to regain control several times by simply hitting a few well-timed punches of his own.

But Hansen was more than just a great brawler here. He was so determined to beat Kobashi that he resorted to submission wrestling and diving through the ropes like a cruiserweight. And this was coming from a 47-year-old, near-300-pound man. It was amazing to see him do this at that age and after so many years in the wrestling business. I had the pleasure of interviewing Hansen many years ago and he mentioned how he brought his A-game all the time, whether he was wrestling in front of 40,000 fans or 250. He took his job seriously and that effort translated into a hell of a great match on many occasions, including here.

That’s not to say that this match was great only because of Hansen. Kobashi was terrific as usual here. He played the role of gutsy underdog perfectly and tried to go toe-to-toe with the most feared wrestler in the entire country. Kobashi sold like a boss for Hansen and had to overcome a multi-pronged assault. Not only did Hansen beat him down with hard strikes, but he also came close to neutralizing Kobashi’s lariat arm. that forced Kobashi to go deeper than ever before to overcome the pain and hit Hansen hard enough to keep him down long enough for the three-count. And in the end, it worked. Kobashi’s wrestling strategy has always been straightforward: hit his opponent until they stop moving. Here, Hansen tried to do the same to Kobashi while also making it harder for Kobashi to hit him. But on this night, Kobashi’s will to win was too much for Hansen to overcome. It ended up being a turning point in their storied rivalry. Kobashi scored a critical win over a legend that had terrified the AJPW roster for over a decade. In doing so, he proved that he, at the very least, was on the same level as the legends that paved the way for him and his generation.

Final rating: ****1/2

Although it’s not at the same level as two of their previous matches, this match still kicks ass. If there’s one wrestler that really went out of his way to look real in the ring (even if that meant actually hitting his opponents for real), it was Hansen. He took his wrestling seriously and everyone around him had to get onto his level, including Kobashi. That’s what happened here, and the results were a match that, while not a historic epic, still holds up pretty damn well to time.

While most fans know that wrestling isn’t real, there’s something to be said about the few wrestlers that really tried to convince viewers otherwise. And while some might not appreciate Hansen’s methods, his results can’t be denied. His matches – including this one – maintained an edge of realism and believability that has long been scraped away elsewhere in the wrestling world. And that realism makes his match stand out in a positive way, even to this very day.