In 1996, there was a ton of talk about a 60-minute between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. It was hyped up as the greatest match of all time, but once it was over, there’s no way that was true. Not only was it not the best match of all time, but it wasn’t even the best 60-minute match of 1996 or even the best match of that year.
What we’re looking at today is a proper 60-minute match. I know some people shudder at the idea of sitting down and watching a full hour of nonstop wrestling, but this is one of the few cases where that concept worked. The two wrestlers involved in this match managed to not only wrestle an exciting and intense match for a full hour, but they also structured the match so that it was never boring. How did they do that? Read on to find out.
Today we look back at the singles match between Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada from October 18th, 1996.
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.
Three months earlier, Kobashi defeated Kawada’s friend and tag partner Akira Taue to win his first Triple Crown Championship. Taue didn’t get an immediate rematch because All Japan didn’t believe in lazy booking concepts like the automatic rematch clause in his contract. He didn’t do a good job defending it so why would he deserve another shot at it? Anyway, with Taue out of the world title picture, new champion Kobashi needed challengers. His first was Stan Hansen, a gruff and grizzled veteran who once held that same title. He challenged for Kobashi’s title in September but came up short, losing to Kobashi cleanly for the first time in Kobashi’s career. That was a big win for Kobashi given Hansen’s legendary reputation in Japan.
But his next challenger was going to be as big of a challenge if not a bigger one: Toshiaki Kawada.
Kawada was by far the most feared wrestler in All Japan. He was monstrously stiff and threw his opponents around with the most dangerous suplexes imaginable. And like Hansen, he was a former world champion going into this match. But there was one additional caveat to the story: Kobashi had never managed to pin Kawada. Kawada had beaten Kobashi in almost all of their twenty prior matches going as far back as 1988. The only exceptions among those twenty matches were a few draws here and there, but one of them was especially important. On January 19th, 1995, Kobashi challenged then-world champion Kawada in an outstanding and brutal classic. But despite Kawada’s best efforts, he couldn’t beat Kobashi in that match; they wrestled to a 60-minute draw.
Going into this match, the roles were reversed. Kobashi was the champion defending against Kawada. So not only did Kobashi hope to keep his title, but he also wanted to finally get that big win over one of his most difficult opponents.
But for Kawada, this was more than just a title shot; this was redemption.
Earlier in the year, Kawada got punished for making some controversial public comments that cast AJPW owner Giant Baba in a bad light. His punishment was the loss of his singles push; had that not happened, it’s highly likely that he would’ve been the one to beat Mitsuharu Misawa for the title in May. Instead, Kawada had to watch from the sidelines as his buddy Taue got the title first. But Kawada could accept that; he knew Taue well from their years brutalizing each other and then their time as highly-successful tag partners. But he couldn’t accept Kobashi as champion. Kobashi was much younger and lower on the totem pole. And Kawada knew he was a better wrestler than Kobashi; after all, history proved it. But could he overcome Kobashi again now with the roles reversed? Or would Kobashi’s positive momentum following his successful defense against Hansen lead him to another victory here?
This match originally took place on October 18th, 1996 in AJPW’s home venue, Budokan Hall. It was originally rated **** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Over twenty-five years have passed since then, so let’s see how well this match holds up.
This is for Kobashi’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship and is the 22nd singles match between Kobashi and Kawada. They lock-up and Kawada powers Kobashi into a corner. He breaks clean but then immediately cheap-shots Kobashi with a boot to the face. That angers Kobashi and he walks right up to Kawada and Kawada backs off slightly and starts stretching. He’s completely unafraid of Kobashi and he makes it blatantly obvious he thinks Kobashi ain’t s**t. They tease locking up and Kobashi kicks Kawada’s left leg. Kawada hobbles away because that knee had been targeted by Kobashi before since it’s Kawada’s signature weapon. There’s another quick shot of Kobashi retaining the title against Stan Hansen from a month before this as the two wrestlers trade holds. Kobashi elbows out of a rear waistlock and goes for his trademark discus chop. Kawada ducks. Dangerous Backdrop Driver! Kawada spikes Kobashi on his head minutes into the match.
Kobashi tries to get to his feet but can’t manage. He crawls around the ring and somehow makes it to his feet in time to block a jumping gamengiri kick. Kawada charges and hits a yakuza kick. Kobashi tanks it and smashes Kawada with a lariat. Both wrestlers collapse. This is great so far and we’re only two minutes in.
Both guys sell for a while until Kobashi tackles Kawada from the apron to the floor. A basement dropkick sends Kawada back-first into the steel barricade and then Kobashi pushes him into the ring for a powerbomb. Kawada resists it and reaches the ropes, so Kobashi chops his neck. Kawada takes multiple stiff chops and then gets locked in a sleeperhold. Kawada tries to judo throw Kobashi off but Kobashi holds on. He manages to reach the ropes with his foot so Kobashi responds with a snapmare and a Figure-4 neck lock. Kawada spends a long time in this hold until he reaches the ropes once more. He starts firing back with chops of his own. Kobashi tanks them and goes for a suplex. Both wrestlers block each other and look for different openings. Kawada tries an armbar and backfists while Kobashi relies on chops and kicks to Kawada’s leg. Kawada catches Kobashi’s leg and slaps him so hard he collapses. But that only manages to rile Kobashi up as he lands stiff slaps of his own. Kobashi winds up his arm for a lariat. Kawada ducks it. Kobashi fires back with another neck chop. Kawada lands a big gamengiri kick to Kobashi’s face.
Kawada’s in control as he lands stepkicks and boots to neutralize Kobashi. Each time Kobashi tries to fight back with chops, Kawada hits a multitude of stiff attacks to keep Kobashi on the defensive. Kawada chases Kobashi to the floor but ends up whipped into the steel ring barricade. Kobashi charges again but gets kicked in the side of the head where Kawada’s earlier slap rang his bell. Kawada unleashes even more stiff kicks and stomps. Kobashi tries getting back into the ring but Kawada stepkicks him through the ropes. Kobashi tries fighting out of a single leg crab but Kawada breaks him by stomping on his head and then applies the hold. He reaches the ropes so Kawada boots him in the face, busting his nose open in the process. Kawada takes advantage of this newfound injury and applies a deep facelock and then pins for two. He applies a deep headlock that Kobashi tries and fails to escape out of, and then lands a kneedrop. Kobashi sells like either a part of his face has been broken or Kawada ruptured his eardrum. Either way, he must be in excruciating pain.
Kawada lands more stepkicks but Kobashi starts hitting back. Kobashi teases a Backdrop. Kawada resists and charges for a lariat. Kobashi blocks and chops Kawada down to the mat. Kawada reapplies the headlock. Kobashi counters with a successful Backdrop suplex. Kobashi goes to capitalize on this but gets kicked in the head twice. Kawada hits more stepkicks. Kobashi fires up and hits a huge elbow. Kawada ducks one discus chop but can’t avoid the following two. Both wrestlers stagger. Kobashi lands one more discus chop, two DDTs, and some Hogan leg drops. Then he slams Kawada and goes for the moonsault. Kawada rolls to safety so Kobashi suplexes him and goes for a powerbomb. Kawada resists so Kobashi leg drops his neck. His next powerbomb connects. Kawada gets to his feet and tries to fight through but staggers and falls back. His selling is amazing. Kobashi signals the end. Burning Lariat connects! One, two, th – no, Kawada kicks out. Kobashi tries another one. Kawada ducks and hits a German suplex. Kobashi gets up right away and charges. Kawada hits a gamengiri first. Both men collapse. Kawada looks like he hurts his leg with his own kick. He crawls over for pin. One, two, Kobashi survives.
Kawada goes for his own powerbomb but Kobashi powers out so Kawada lariats the back of his head. Dangerous Backdrop! Kawada spikes Kobashi a second time! Kawada crawls over and applies the Stretch Plum submission hold. He traps the arm and Kobashi looks like he goes limp. Kawada pins but only gets two. Kawada reapplies the hold, yet somehow Kobashi manages to get to the ropes. Both wrestlers collapse and take a minute to recover.
Kawada kicks Kobashi in a corner. Kawada lands another yakuza kick and then gets revenge for earlier by kicking Kobashi’s knee. He goes for a high kick to the chest. Kobashi catches his leg and counters with a dragon screw leg whip. Kobashi goes for another one. Kawada tries to escape with elbows but Kobashi powers through and lands a second dragon screw. Then Kobashi gets revenge with a single leg crab onto Kawada (along with stomps to the head for good measure). Kawada tries to free himself with kicks with his free leg but those only make Kobashi cinch in the hold deeper. Kawada manages to reach the ropes but is soon hit with multiple kicks to his bad leg. He hobbles around as Kobashi lands a knee crusher and a dropkick to that leg. Figure-4 leglock. Kawada tries to kick out and counter the hold onto Kobashi but neither strategy works. With no other choice, Kawada tries pulling himself – and therefore Kobashi – to the ropes, but Kobashi pulls back. Eventually, Kawada gets to the ropes and Kobashi lets go.
Kobashi goes for another knee crusher but Kawada elbows out. Kobashi hits back with a big punch and a nasty German suplex which Kawada sells like he’s out cold. Yet somehow, Kawada has enough wherewithal to block a follow-up dragon suplex. But Kobashi counters by trapping Kawada’s arms and lands yet another German. Kawada hits the mat hard. Scoop slam/leg drop combo. Kobashi goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault…connects. One, two, thr – Kawada kicks out. Kobashi can’t believe it. The fans start chanting for Kawada. Jackknife powerbomb. Kawada kicks out of that, too. Kawada gets to his knees and instinctively tries to get in position for the Dangerous Backdrop. But Kobashi keeps blocking. Then Kawada lands another gamengiri out of nowhere. Kobashi staggers and instinctively goes for a lariat. Kawada blocks and tries his own but gets kicked in the face. Double lariats. Both wrestlers go down again.
We’re now 35 minutes into the match as the fans scream both wrestlers’ names. Kobashi blcoks one gamengiri but can’t block the next one. Kawada follows with a running knee but falls into the corner due to his ongoing knee issues. Kawada fights through incredible pain and exhaustion but manages to lifts Kobashi up…and smashes him with his Folding Powerbomb finisher. One, two, and Kobashi still kciks out. Kawada tries lifting Kobashi up again but he might as well be lifting a sandbag, Kobashi’s so out of it. so Kawada answers with a stiff ax kick to Kobashi’s neck, but again this damages his own leg. Undeterred, he still tries another powerbomb. But this time both wrestlers collapse against the ropes. Kawada still won’t give up. He’s going to hit that next powerbomb even if it kills him, dammit. And he does. Another Folding Powerbomb connects. Kawada pins but Kobashi still kicks out at 2.9.
Kawada hobbles over but Kobashi lands desperation kicks to his bad leg to buy more time. Kawada marches forward but gets caught with a third dragon screw. Both guys fight to their feet and Kobashi continues with leg kicks. This irritates Kawada so he punches Kobashi hard in the face. Kobashi lands one more stiff chop. Kawada answers with a Dangerous Backdrop. Wait, no, Kobashi does the Misawa counter midair into a crossbody pin for two. LARIATO! Both wrestlers go down. Kobashi hits so hard he hurts his own arm. Both guys somehow get to their feet. Kobashi hits first with a left-arm lariat and drags Kawada away from the ropes. He pins but Kawada still survives.
Kobashi attempts a dragon suplex but Kawada gets to the ropes. He tries again and Kawada blocks, chops his neck and lands an abisengiri rolling kick for two. Kawada lands multiple lariats to the back of Kobashi’s head. And then spikes him again with a third Dangerous Backdrop. Kobashi’s on auto-pilot as he gets to the ropes to avoid being pinned. Kawada pulls him away and goes for another powerbomb. Kobashi escapes and Kawada collapses alongside him due to his leg still giving him problems. And yet, Kawada goes for a spinkick. But Kobashi catches and elbows his leg and then returns the favor with his own Dangerous Backdrop. Kobashi’s not done. He lifts a near-dead Kawada up and lands a second one right away. Kawada lands right on the top of his head. Kobashi pins. One, two thre – no, Kawada kicks out at 2.99!
Kobashi charges for a lariat but Kawada blocks. He tries again. Kawada judo arm throws him and locks in a cross armbreaker. On the same bad arm Kobashi hurt earlier on. Kawada wrenches it like he’s trying to rip Kobashi’s arm out of its socket. Kobashi writhes around like a wounded animal in a cage and manages to touch the ropes with his foot. Kawada charges for his own lariat. Kobashi blocks and tries another one himself. Kawada counters it into a Fujiwara armbar. Kobashi gets a ropebreak. Kawada pulls him away and reapplies the armbar. Kobashi rolls through and kicks Kawada’s head to escape. Now Kawada’s neck is f**ked and so are both of Kobashi’s arms. Kawada lands another desperation gamengiri – his own body be damned – and signals the end. He lands one more jumping kick but his knee gives out once more. The guy’s own body is shutting down on him as he tries to push forward.
The crowd chants for Kobashi as the 50-minute mark passes. Kobashi ends up on the apron but Kawada yakuza kicks him to the floor. Kobashi gets a sudden second wind and rushes back into the ring where Kawada greets him with stepkicks and a headlock. But Kobashi grapples out and traps both Kawada’s arms for the Tiger suplex. Kawada gets to the safety of the ropes but Kobashi keeps on hitting. Kobashi lands two back-of-the-head lariats as revenge and hooks the arms again. Tiger Suplex connects. Kobashi collapses alongside Kawada from pure exhaustion but eventually crawls over for a pin. One, two, Kawada kicks out.
Kobashi goes for a German but Kawada resists so he hits kicks to the head followed by a lariat for two. German suplex connects. Kawada gets up and hits a yakuza kick. Kobashi answers with another lariat. Both guys collapse yet again. Kobashi pins but too much time has passed and Kawada kicks out. He locks in a sleeper into an Ace Crusher and pins for two.
Five minutes left.
Kobashi goes for a moonsault but Kawada rolls out of range. Both guys stagger around hitting chops on each other. Kobashi eats a boot and charges back for a lariat but Kawada counters with a massive spinkick. Then Kawada goes to the tope rope…and lands a diving kneedrop. One, two, kickout. Kawada tries a dragon suplex but Kobashi copies his strategy and stays by the ropes for safety.
Three minutes left.
Kawada ax kicks Kobashi’s head and comments with the dragon suplex. He goes for a powerbomb. Kobashi pushes him into the ropes but Kawada tries again.
Two minutes left.
Kawada tries and tries and tries but Kobashi refuses to be lifted into the powerbomb. Kobashi gets up first and lands desperation kicks.
One minute left.
Bridging northern lights suplex. Kawada kicks out. Kobashi tries that same move again. Kawada counters with a backslide. No, Kobashi counters that and pins. One, two, kickout.
Twenty seconds left.
Kobashi wills himself forward for a simple pin but Kawada still kicks out.
Ten seconds left.
Kobashi goes for another powerbomb but Kawada resists with all his might.
But then the bell rings. Time has run out. Both wrestlers collapse to the canvas. The match is a DRAW!
STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion due to a 60-Minute Draw: Kenta Kobashi
It amazes me how these AJPW legends could face each other so many times without their matches ever getting boring or repetitive. This match had many similarities to their January 1995 epic yet it felt different in its own way. And just like that 1995 match, this was an excellent and brutal war that more than justified its 60-minute runtime.
The story here was a mirror of that 1995 title match. Although Kobashi had the same goal here of finally beating Kawada, he also had added pressure of defending his title instead of challenging for it. Kawada knew this, which is why he was so nonchalant early on and took advantage with his first Dangerous Backdrop. By the end, Kawada was doing to Kobashi what Kobashi had done to Kawada in 1995: keep kicking out of and escaping falls to frustrate the defending champion. Kawada had tried everything to drop Kobashi but couldn’t do it, so he spent the last ten minutes or so stalling and outright stealing that pinfall victory Kobashi was so desperate to achieve. He didn’t have to do much; all he had to do was avoid pins whenever possible and kick-out to dash Kobashi’s hopes. And he did this perfectly. By the time the final bell rang, Kobashi retained the title on a technicality. Kawada, though not champion, managed to maintain the status quo that was still in place in All Japan. Kobashi had never beaten him before and even though he had the spotlight shone on him as world champion, he had to deal with the fact that he only managed to DRAW against Kawada, not beat him. It proved that Kawada was still above him. But actually, that was a good thing. It re-established Kawada as a threat in world title matches after he spent most of the year in Baba’s doghouse. And with that survival, he was able to give more credibility to his future title shots and championship reigns. It was great to see such a great match built on the two simple stories of champion vs. challenger and one wrestler wanting, no, needing to beat the other. Making wins and losses matter isn’t rocket science; these guys made this 60-minute epic out of that story.
This was a textbook case on how to make a 60-minute match exciting without it ever dragging. Kobashi and Kawada established key story threads early on with Kawada establishing control with his first Dangerous Backdrop and Kobashi attacking Kawada’s leg. Both wrestlers then layered their attacks on top of one another so that whatever they did earlier on would either be revisited or play a role in the match as the end drew near. Because of the match’s length, both Kobashi and Kawada had to rely on different strategies to try and win. Kobashi targeted Kawada’s neck with chops, DDTs, suplexes and powerbombs, until Kawada could barely stand. Meanwhile, Kawada attacked Kobashi’s head (and especially his ear) in the same way, but he also tried two additional strategies. When throwing bombs wasn’t enough to keep Kobashi down, Kawada tried to take out Kobashi’s arms and his legs, hoping Kobashi would be worn down to the point of becoming nothing more than a warm body.
But Kobashi didn’t; he powered through and spammed his own head-spiking moves knowing that’s what his former partner Misawa had used to bear Kawada in the past. He also dismantled Kawada’s legs and got much more out of it. He was so determined to take Kawada’s weapons away that he endured several stiff kicks to the face to keep his leg crab hold in place. That sort of toughness and determination is needed these days; too often wrestlers will break a hold the moment they get hit, instead of fighting through it and maintaining their submission holds.
This match had some truly fantastic near-falls, especially towards the end. After Kawada and Kobashi had just destroyed each other, Kobashi looked for anything to put Kawada down. And when it came down to the final minute, Kobashi went for basic moves out of both desperation and knowing how weakened Kawada was at that point. That was critical here; even with some slow moments the match never really lost its tension or had any dead air. There was action, tension, and excitement from bell to bell. These two wrestlers knew exactly how to wrestle for a long time without ever losing the crowd. And the way they did that was by creating multiple finishing stretches. They traded finishers and close near-falls 25 minutes in, 35 minutes in, 45 minutes in, and then during the final ten minutes. During each of those stretches, both wrestlers had to work extremely hard to land a big move and then follow-up on a pin. Nothing came easy here, which caused every pin or submission hold after the 25-minute mark mean something and believable as a potential match-ender.
The only real issues here were minor. Both wrestlers sold incredibly well for each other, especially Kawada. He tried to fight through the pain from taking a huge suplex or powerbomb by struggling to his feet, only for his body to give up on him. As for Kobashi, he looked like he hurt himself for real several times and did a phenomenal job convincing the audience he was in excruciating pain. Yet both wrestlers were a bit inconsistent in following up with damage. Kawada spent several minutes getting his leg worked over badly, yet shortly after a Figure-4 leglock he was jumping, kicking and running as if he still had two fully-functional legs. Kobashi did something similar, but with his arms. He got both of his arms damaged, yet he relied on chops and lariats for offense even though he could’ve landed some simple kicks to keep Kawada at bay long enough for him to recover. Those inconsistencies were a bit awkward. I get that they tried to show they were fighting through the pain, but both of them had done better jobs before in following up on that sort of thing. It’s a minor issue, but it takes the viewer out of the action when Wrestler A is selling major limb damage one minute, does something that shows no ill effect the next, and then suddenly remembers they have to sell right after that. Maybe it got lost in the ambition of this match, but I think both guys were a bit off their game when it came to selling each other’s brutal offense here. But that doesn’t take away from everything else in this match.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This was a 60-minute titanic struggle for survival. It pitted two amazing wrestlers against each other in a brutal war for both prestige and bragging rights. And because these were two of the best wrestlers ever, they managed to have an hour-long match that wasn’t boring. Very few wrestlers have been able to pull that off, especially when wrestling in a style so punishing as All Japan’s King’s Road-style.
This is a rare treat of a match. It managed to stay interesting and tense without ever getting plodding or reaching overkill levels of action. It was tense from bell to bell and didn’t fall into the overplayed ‘peak-valley-peak-valley’ pattern that’s all too common in modern matches. And if you’re especially fond of insane ‘how-did-he-survive-that’ action, this match has that and then some. A highly entertaining match if there ever was one.