Some of you reading this might recognize one of the two wrestlers here from his recent appearance in AEW. At All Out 2021 (which was a pretty damn great show, top to bottom), Kojima fought Jon Moxley and came up short.
But in that match, Kojima was built up as a Japanese legend a very big deal, even though he was long past his prime? And when was his prime? During the 2000s. And today we look back at what is quite possibly his best match.
Today we revisit the match that turned Kojima into a world champion-caliber athlete and a star. It’s his big title challenge against the mythical Toshiaki Kawada from AJPW’s Realize 2005 event.
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.
After over a decade of trying, Toshiaki Kawada finally got his big reign as champion. In September 2003, Kawada won a tournament for the vacant Triple Crown. And so began what has become known as ‘the reign of loyalty’. Kawada remained loyal to All Japan following the NOAH split and was central to the big money feuds with New Japan and other outsiders that kept All Japan alive during several years of turmoil. During his reign, Kawada managed to set a new record with ten successful title defenses, a record that still stands to this day. Kawada’s reign included successful defenses against a bevy of worthy challengers: his former mentor Genichiro Tenryu, his NJPW equivalent Shinya Hashimoto, Jamal (a.k.a. Umaga before he returned to WWE), NJPW/freelance powerhouse Kensuke Sasaki, a post-WWE Mick Foley, NJPW heavyweight champion Hiroyoshi Tenzan, and others all failed to take the Triple Crown from Kawada. That last name is especially important considering who is challenging Kawada in this match.
Satoshi Kojima was once a prominent rising star in New Japan. But after the New Japan/All Japan crosspromotional war that took place throughout late 2000 and all of 2001, Kojima followed Keiji Muto and defected to All Japan. In doing so, he and his tag partner and close friend Tenzan were split up. Once considered the best tag team in Japan, Tenzan and Kojima now wrestled for rival companies. A few years passed and Tenzan achieved far more success. By the time this match was scheduled, Tenzan had won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship four times. However, those four reigns were all short with the longest lasting only 70 days. This was during a very tumultuous dark period for New Japan during which their booking was nonsensical. It was nowhere near what it became years later with long reigns and rare title challenges.
Anyways, Tenzan was in attendance as he hoped to get some kind of revenge by-proxy here. Tenzan, the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, was pinned by Kawada, the Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. Tenzan wanted to see his friend Kojima beat the man that beat him. But that was going to be a huge challenge for Kojima. He had already lost a dream singles match to Mitsuharu Misawa in 2004, which led some doubts about his ability to carry All Japan going forward. Plus, this is Kawada we’re talking about. He’s widely considered among the best wrestlers of all time and is notorious for being the stiffest striker possibly ever. Even with a body held together by rubber bands and pure hatred, Kawada was as credible as he was dangerous.
Kojima had youth and relative health on his side while Kawada had experience on his. Kawada was a far more brutal striker and had very dangerous moves at his disposal including the gamengiri kick to the face, the Folding Powerbomb, and the Dangerous Backdrop Driver.
Kojima, meanwhile, had this:
While he wasn’t Stan Hansen, Kojima’s lariat was a weapon to be feared. And if he managed to hit Kawada with it, could he do what no one else could and capture the most respected and revered title in pro-wrestling?
This match originally took place on February 16th, 2005. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
The bell rings and the crowd are overwhelmingly behind Kojima. They trade lock-ups against the ropes until Kojima hits some early slaps, signing his death wish in the process. They go back-and-forth with armlocks and armbars until another ropebreak occurs. Kojima hits some stiff corner chops but Kawada just walks out and gets right in his face. Kojima fires off an elbow that does absolutely nothing and Kawada answers with a chop that sends Kojima across the ring. They start trading strikes until Kawada drops Kojima with an elbow. Kojima recovers ringside but when he re-enters the ring Kawada rushes him and kicks him to the canvas.
Kawada starts working over Kojima’s leg but Kojima soon counters with a leglock of his own and both men end up in simultaneous leg holds. Kojima gets a ropebreak and both men back off to get feeling back into their legs. Kojima starts an elbow exchange with Kawada but it backfires when Kawada rocks him with an extra stiff elbow followed by a hook kick. Kawada lands a knee drop on Kojima’s face and pins for a two-count and then goes for a chinlock. He switches into a double-arm stretch and Kojima fights hard to either escape or reverse it onto Kawada but Kawada overpowers him. The crowd goes absolutely nuts screaming and cheering for Kojima as he inches his way closer to reversing the hold, and when he does he gets loud applause, even as Kawada gets a ropebreak.
Kojima hits some chops and forearms but Kawada lands an exceptionally-stiff slap that sends Kojima staggering backwards. He slams Kojima to the mat and stomps him hard, which causes the referee to start counting. Kojima makes it to his feet and Kawada lands nasty kicks to the chest for another two-count. Kawada mauls Kojima with turnbuckle smashes, chops to the chest, and forearms to the back of the head. He lands some patented Kawada stepkicks to the head but Kojima fires up and starts hitting back. Kojima lands some chops of his own and lands a corner running forearm, followed by an elbow drop. He lands another jumping elbow and goes to climb the turnbuckle but Kawada cuts him off and boots him to the floor. Kojima pulls himself to the apron but Kawada boots him down once again. Kawada whips Kojima into the apron and hits a boot. Then he goes for a powerbomb on the ringside mats. But Kojima resists with all his might. So Kawada smashes his head into the side of the ring, then hits more stepkicks. Kawada’s powerbomb connects. Kojima takes a nasty landing on the ringside mats. Kawada tosses him into the ring and pins for a two-count.
Kawada puts Kojima in a seated position and hits a chop/spine kick combo that was popularized stateside by Samoa Joe. Kawada stomps on Kojima’s head and locks in a single leg crab but Kojima gets a ropebreak so Kawada kicks his head some more. Kawada hits more stepkicks but Kojima fires up. Kojima keeps hitting Kawada with stiff elbows of his own but Kawada barely even flinches. In fact, he keeps walking forward on each strike and then hits a one-two elbow combo in shades of Misawa. More stepkicks, followed by a spinkick to the gut. That’s followed by a big corner yakuza kick and a running lariat. One, two, Kojima kicks out. Stretch Plum submission hold. Kawada then modifies the hold to trap Kojima’s right arm. Kojima sinks down a bit but manages to kick out of a pin.
Kawada goes for a Dangerous Backdrop but Kojima elbows out. Kojima channels Misawa again and hits a nasty elbow combo followed by a rolling elbow smash. That’s followed by a Koji Cutter. Both men collapse. Kojima gets up first and hits a Tiger Driver. One, two, Kawada kicks out. Kojima goes for a German suplex but Kawada escapes and lands an enzuigiri. Kawada tries another Dangerous Backdrop but Kojima gets to the ropes so Kawada answers with knee lifts. Dangerous Backdrop connects. One, two, th – Kojima kicks out. Kawada hits a running lariat…but Kojima absorbs it and barely moves. Kawada tries again…and this time Kojima lariat’s Kawada’s arm. Kojima follows with not one but two snap Brainbusters. One, two, Kawada kicks out. Kojima charges for a lariat and runs into another big boot and another enzuigiri. But he still has the wherewithal to hit his own lariat. Kawada bounces back up and hits a yakuza kick! The fans are going nuts! Double lariats! Both men stagger. Kojima fires up first and hits a second lariat! Both wrestlers collapse. Kojima eventually makes it over and covers. One, two, Kawada kicks out. Kojima locks in an armbar while trapping Kawada’s other arm with his legs. Kawada struggles but manages to pull himself to the ropes, forcing a break.
The crowd’s still behind Kojima as he trades elbows with Kawada once again. Suddenly Kawada stops hitting because of the damage done to his right arm. He slumps over and Kojima kicks that same arm. Modified Emerald Flowsion. Kawada kicks out at 2.9! Kojima reapplies the same armbar from earlier but this time locks it in kimura-style to do more damage to the forearm. Kojima switches to a pin but Kawada still kicks out at two. Kojima charges for a lariat. Kawada hits first with a gamengiri kick. One, two, Kojima kicks out. Kawada goes for a running punt to a seated Kojima but Kojima ducks. Kawada answers with a kick to Kojima’s spine. That’s followed by another gamengiri and a second Dangerous Backdrop. But Kawada’s not done. He tries the Folding Powerbomb. Kojima resists so Kawada stepkicks his head again. Folding powerbomb connects. One, two, and – no, Kojima kicks out.
Kawada pulls Kojima up but Kojima starts hitting back with more elbows. Kawada gets the upper hand and nails many stiff elbows including another Misawa-style left-right combo. Then Kawada tries another gamengiri kick but Kojima blocks it and charges. Kojima runs into a gut kick but then swings and this a savage lariat. One, two, Kawada kicks out again. Kawada gets up to his feet and braces for impact. LARIATO! Kawada kicks out at one! Kojima lariats the back of Kawada’s head and charges once more. LARIATO again! One, two, Kawada kicks out at two this time. Lariat #3! One, two, and three! Kojima beats Kawada!
Winner and NEW AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 27:04: Satoshi Kojima
Post-match, Kojima tries to celebrate but needs the ropes to hold himself up. Kawada makes it to his feet and tries to congratulate Kojima but both of them fall over, exhausted. Kawada pulls Kojima up and gives him a light slap to wake him up and then hands him the three belts representing the Triple Crown. Then, as the ultimate form of respect for the new champion, Kawada wraps one of the titles around Kojima’s waist.
As Kojima begins his post-match promo, Tenzan enters the ring carrying the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. He congratulates Kojima on his win but then the tone shifts and the fans boo him. I’m guessing he says something along the lines of ‘that title isn’t as good as mine’. That leads to a title vs. title match soon after which Kojima wins. So for a brief period, Kojima is recognized as both AJPW’s World Champion and NJPW’s World Champion.
Even though Kawada was long past his prime, he still brought his A-game here. He showed that he could still hang with a much younger and fresher challenger. He showed that he was just as vicious and skilled a wrestler as he was in his prime. He did more with less and still managed to have an excellent match with Kojima here. This really is a solid classic that does a fantastic job of creating a true passing-of-the-torch moment in wrestling.
The match had a classic ‘veteran vs. hungry rising star’ dynamic. Kawada did an amazing job just beating the tar out of Kojima and acting as the mean old bastard that wanted to put his challenger in his place. The way he stiffed Kojima and hit him when he was down did wonders in maintaining sympathy for Kojima throughout the match. And while the crowd never booed Kawada, they cheered far louder for Kojima and that was audible throughout the match. That’s the mark of a top-tier pro-wrestler. Kawada didn’t have an outward gimmick in the traditional sense; he sold his personality through his actions in the ring. It became obvious that he was grumpy, cantankerous, and violent if provoked. Kojima needed to poke the bear to win, and by doing so he suffered a nasty mauling. Kojima was on defense for around 2/3 of the match and only managed to sneak in a few surprise hits between Kawada’s extended control segments. Slowly but surely, Kojima started to create cracks in Kawada’s armor and eventually started a more sustained comeback. Once he hit a Misawa-style elbow combo and his Koji Cutter, he started to gain some serious momentum. And once the lariat barrage began, it really became anyone’s game. Kojima took out Kawada’s ability to land his big power moves reliably and then took away Kawada’s ability to brawl consistently. And once again, Kawada showed how he is a master at selling as he couldn’t continue trading elbows with Kojima due to the damage done to his arm by Kojima’s armbar.
At the same time, Kojima did an outstanding job of playing the unstoppable babyface. Once he gained control, Kawada tried taking control back by hitting surprise moves out of nowhere like the gamengiri and some lariats. But Kojima wouldn’t back down. He fought like hell just to stay standing and show Kawada just how much he had left in the tank. Kojima channeled babyface fire like a true pro, and once he kicked out of Kawada’s vicious gamengiri/Dangerous Backdrop/Folding Powerbomb sequence, victory was all but guaranteed for Kojima.
Then there was the final two minutes, which saw some brutally stiff offense being exchanged. But no matter how hard Kawada tried, he knew Kojima was unstoppable at that point. So he decided to do some mind games one last time. Kawada braced for impact and took Kojima’s lethal lariats without trying to dodge or block. The first full-power lariat yielded a one-count, the second a two-count, and the final third the three-count Kojima needed to win.
Final Rating: ****3/4
I agree with Meltzer’s original rating here. This match was almost flawless and features some great wrestling, selling, storytelling, all of which took place in front of a wild crowd that gave this match a big fight atmosphere. I just think it lacks something special to put it over as a perfect match. Maybe some more consistent leg selling from Kojima or a tenser finishing stretch, or maybe more defiance from Kojima as Kawada rained punishment down on him. But that doesn’t mean this match isn’t great. It’s still fantastic in virtually every way.
If you ever want to see how passing the torch is done properly in pro-wrestling without the need for complex angles, stories, promos, or gimmicks, watch this match. This match solidified Kojima as a star and made him into one of the top wrestlers of the past twenty years.