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5-Star Match Reviews: Kenta Kobashi vs. Samoa Joe, ROH Joe vs. Kobashi, by Alex Podgorski

TJR Wrestling

This is widely considered to be the greatest ‘indy wrestling’ match of all time. And that is thanks to a perfect combination of three elements: a legendary Japanese wrestler (Kobashi), a determined rising star (Joe), and quite possibly the best wrestling crowd ever recorded.

The great Keiji Mutoh (a.k.a. The Great Muta) once said that American wrestling fans are not just fans, but ‘match producers’. They are much more vocal during a match, so their response plays a more critical role in a match’s success or failure. That mentality on perfect display in this famous bout between a Japanese legend and one of the top rising stars of the 2000s.

Between 2003 and 2005, Kenta Kobashi was the unquestioned king of pro wrestling anywhere in the world (Kurt Angle was a close second). He was the top star in Japan, and could put on a great match with just about anyone. After his historic World Title reign came to end, Kobashi started having dream matches with anyone that dared to challenge him. At the time, Ring of Honor (ROH) was a growing promotion and boasted an impressive roster of rising stars. Among them was a technically-sound brawler named Samoa Joe. Joe was a rare hybrid wrestler: a 275-pound submission expert who could hit diving and aerial moves like someone 70 pounds lighter. He had built up a reputation in the United States, but he needed a big star to elevate him to the upper tier of American wrestling.

Enter the Ironman.

Kobashi agreed to work a singles match with Joe at a ROH PPV in his name. This was because NOAH was expanding its influence by forming partnerships with other promotions and Ring of Honor (ROH) was a welcome partner. Moreover, the independent wrestling scene during the 2000s was heavily influenced by NOAH and their King’s Road wrestling style. A lot of the great matches and rivalries that occurred during that decade were inspired by the King’s Road wrestlers, and now one of their biggest icons was coming to America.

It is important to note that, according to Joe himself, Kobashi was fully convinced that no one knew who he was going into this match. He thought he’d get no reaction, and so he thought he’d need to work the match as a typical, 1960’s-style evil Japanese heel. But Joe reassured him that this wasn’t the case, and that all the fans knew who he was.

Even before either man enters, the fans are already chanting ‘KO-BA-SHI’ very loudly. Joe enters and the fans chant along with his entrance theme. Then Kobashi’s theme starts playing and the fans are getting restless. Then, as soon as he appears through the curtain, the place EXPLODES in cheers. So much so that Kobashi has this dumbfounded look on his face, completely taken aback at the positive reaction he was getting. They do official ring announcements and the crowd continues to make tons of noise. The fans toss a ton of streamers as soon as Kobashi’s name is announced.

As a reminder, I am reviewing 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 match

This match took place on October 1, 2005 at the New Yorker Hotel in New York City, New York.

They shake hands and the match begins. They tease a lock-up but Joe kicks Kobashi in the leg, which Kobashi no-sells. They try another lock-up but Joe kicks Kobashi’s other leg, and now Kobashi looking less than thrilled. Joe wins their third lock-up and gets Kobashi to the ropes, and as he breaks it he slaps Kobashi hard in the face. The crowd loudly goes ‘OOOOOOOOOHHH’ a Kobashi does this delayed sell. I’m sure he’s thinking, ‘did this punk really just do that?’ Kobashi slowly turns his head back to Joe and the crowd is firmly in his corner. This time, it’s Kobashi’s turn to break a lock-up in the corner, and Kobashi unleashes his first of what will be MANY knife-edge chops to Joe’s chest. OUCH, that sounded like a gunshot going off. Joe takes it like a man and the two of them have an intense nose-to-nose staredown in the middle of the ring. The crowd is giving them a standing ovation and barely anything has happened. This is great so far.

They do a Greco-Roman knuckle lock test of strength as the fans chant ‘this is awesome’ back when that was rare. Joe wins the test of strength with a double wrist suplex and then tackles Kobashi to the floor. As Kobashi gets up ringside, Joe runs and hits first a baseball slide dropkick, followed by an elbow suicida through the ropes, in tribute to Mitsuharu Misawa. For a guy Joe’s size, it’s amazing that he could do that move so flawlessly. Joe tosses Kobashi back into the ring and gets a two-count on his first pin attempt. He scoop slams Kobashi and hits a jumping elbow drop for another two-count, and then locks in a facelock. Kobashi tries to fight out of it by reaching for the nearest rope with any limb he can, but Joe blocks that by transitioning into a Stretch Plum submission hold. he does reach the ropes eventually with his foot and the crowd applauds.

Joe starts chopping Kobashi in the corner and there are some weak ‘wooo’ chants. Unfortunately for Joe, Kobashi is made of iron and completely no-sells those chops. Joe hits one more chop and then an angry Kobashi fires back with some vicious chops of his own, and one hits so hard you see a ton of sweat fly off Joe’s chest. With each chop, the crowd goes ‘OOHH’. Joe then realizes he can’t win a chop battle with Kobashi, so he fires back with hard kicks to Kobashi’s chest and a massive enzuigiri that gets an even bigger reaction from the crowd.

Joe picks Kobashi and hits several Kawada-style step kicks to his head, only for Kobashi to summon his Burning Spirit and no-sell them and continue with his chops. Joe tries the same attack again, and Kobashi again ignores the pain and chops away. The crowd is loving this sequence. This time Joe hits hard knee strikes to Kobashi’s head, which is enough to send him down. The crowd chants ‘ROH’ as Joe hits a chop-kick-knee drop sequence onto Kobashi and they both go out of the ring. Joe forces Kobashi into a chair in the corner of the ring barricade and hits a running facewash kick as the fans chant ‘Olé’. As Joe picks Kobashi up, a section of the audience chants ‘over here’, and Joe is happy to oblige. He attempts the same move, only to run into a huge chop from a now-standing Kobashi. Kobashi tosses Joe into the chair and then chops him so hard that he goes flying out of the chair, over the barricade, and into the fans. That was crazy.

Kobashi picks Joe up and then DDTs him on the ringside mats as the fans continue to make tons of noise. He tosses Joe into the ring and locks in a front headlock in the centre of the ring. Joe reaches the ropes and gets hit with three more brutal chops. Kobashi hits a knee attack and drills Joe with the Burning Sword downward chop. He then continues to chop the ever-loving shit out of Joe’s chest and gets a two-count after that onslaught. Kobashi then attempts a vertical suplex, but Joe out-powers him and suplexes Kobashi instead. They both get up and begin another vicious strike exchange, and at first it looks like Joe’s gonna win, but Kobashi’s Burning Spirit just won’t die as he hits another flurry of chops. As they hit each other, fans chant with each strike until they’re applauding and giving a standing ovation. Kobashi goes for a pin but Joe grabs the rope at one, so Kobashi begins an abdominal stretch that Joe escapes from quickly. In the light here you can see that Joe’s upper chest has started to darken from all those chops.

Kobashi hits another big downward chop and gets another two-count. Kobashi locks in another facelock but Joe holds on, and then hits a hard chop to the bridge of Joe’s nose. Joe gets up and Kobashi chops the side of his neck, and almost hits the rolling back chop, but Joe blocks it and hits a huge STO out of nowhere followed by a senton. Joe does a jab/chop combination to Kobashi in the corner as the crowd applauds. He attempts a powerbomb but Kobashi holds on, so Joe kicks him in the face and then powerbombs Kobashi into the corner. That causes fans to chant ‘holy shit’.

Joe does the standing facewash several times followed by a running one, and now Joe’s in full control. Joe manages to hoist Kobashi up for the muscle buster, but it gets a 2.8-count. That was a great near-fall, and the crowd loves it so much they’re slapping the barricade to make even more noise. Back in the ring, a frustrated Joe starts kneeing a supine Kobashi and kicks him hard after he escapes a sleeper hold attempt. Joe hits the Folding Powerbomb but it only gets two, and Joe immediately transitions to the STF in the middle of the ring. The fans chant ‘please don’t tap’ for Kobashi and will him on as he crawls to the rope. But as he gets fingertips away, Joe transitions to a crossface. Using his free arm he tries again, so Joe transitions into a Rings of Saturn-like hold, only for Kobashi to reach with his legs. Awesome sequence right there as it showed Joe’s craftiness and Kobashi’s indomitable will.

They get up slowly and Joe charges at Kobashi, only for Kobashi to hit another big chop and a huge Half-Nelson suplex out of nowhere. Kobashi gets up first and hits a rolling back chop that sends Joe into a corner. That’s a death sentence for his chest because Kobashi’s about to go to town on it. Kobashi unleashes his machine gun chops and hits 85 (I may have lost count here) chops to Joe’s chest over a span of 39 seconds. Each time it looked like he’d stop, Kobashi continued, and the fans were cheering like there was no tomorrow. After a short pause, he claps his hands together and hits some double-hand chops to the same region that just got machine gunned. In between strikes, the camera zooms in on Joe’s torso and – I swear to God – Joe’s chest was so purple it looked like it was about to leave his body to go search for the Infinite Gauntlet.

After another hard double hand chop, Kobashi lifts up Joe – who looks like he’s about to pass out – and drops him with another Half-Nelson Suplex. Kobashi goes for a pin but Joe somehow has the wherewithal to grab the ropes at 2.5. As Kobashi prepares for another move, Joe gets a sudden second wind and tries to fight back with hard elbow strikes, only to end up in a Sleeper hold by Kobashi. And just as Joe’s about to reach the ropes, Kobashi turns that into a Sleeper suplex (the kind that WALTER does) and dumps Joe on his head once again for another close call. Now Kobashi’s looking frustrated as Joe writhes about defiantly. Joe gets up and out of desperation starts slapping Kobashi in the face wildly. As Joe charges again, Kobashi chops Joe in the arm he was about to hit with. Kobashi then hits Joe with three huge rolling back chops to the side of the neck, and drills Joe with a huge running lariat.

The referee counts one…two…three! There’s the match.

Winner after 23:42: Kenta Kobashi

Post-match, the fans give Kobashi a lengthy standing ovation and chant his name. Then he walks to Joe and in an outstanding display of sportsmanship, helps him up. The two of them shake hands and hug and Kobashi points to him to the fans. As Joe leaves the ring, the fans start chanting ‘Arigato’ to Kobashi as he bows to the audience. As he leaves the ring, they chant ‘match of the year’ at them.

 

Review

This match was awesome in every sense of the word. I love to re-watch this match from time to time because it never fails to put a smile on my face. This is, in many ways, a perfect wrestling match. You have a legend making his way to America for the first time facing off against a rising star hoping to prove himself. The action never gets too convoluted, the pacing is just right, there’s plenty of back-and-forth momentum shifts, and the crowd is white-hot. Honestly, this crowd was like an NXT crowd long before NXT was even a thing. They cheered every single thing, losing their minds and giving standing ovations for close to thirty minutes. This crowd of maybe one thousand people sounded like an arena of over ten thousand. Even Kobashi himself acknowledged their enjoyment, pointing to them as he chopped Joe, which made them even louder.

As for the wrestling itself, it was simplistic yet logical. I think 95% of Kobashi’s offense consisted of chops and variations of that strike. It worked because it made this feel more like a fight to see who was toughest. Kobashi weakened Joe by turning his chest into ground meat, yet also sold Joe’s biggest moves very well. Kobashi has always been fantastic at selling something to make it seem extra strong, and he made Joe’s offense convincing and credible. A lot of people don’t understand why I praise Kobashi so much. Aside from his superhuman endurance, killer move-set, unmatched work ethic and dedication to his craft, he’s also selfless. Kobashi could’ve easily taken a hefty paycheck from ROH and worked an easy, light match and the fans would’ve still been happy because, for God’s sake, it’s KOBASHI! But no, Kobashi chopped that idea into oblivion like he did Joe’s chest.

Kobashi came to Manhattan with his working boots on and proved to America why his name carries so much weight. Kobashi beat Joe to a pulp, but he also took a savage beating as well. Joe came close to winning several times, and while he did indeed lose, he rose from the canvas as Kobashi’s equal. Joe would become a huge wrestling star in the coming years, and Kobashi learned that wrestlers outside of his native Japan not only know who he is, but that he’s on many fans’ Mount Rushmore of wrestling.

Final Rating: *****

An easy 5-star rating, no doubt about it. This was a perfect match that took place in front of the most gracious crowd ever. This is the kind of match every wrestler would want to have. It may not be the biggest venue, but both wrestlers have the fans completely invested and immersed into everything in the match. They cheer every move and aren’t making noise just to entertain themselves. This match shows that you don’t have to have the most complicated sequences or the most dynamic move-set to tell a great story.

Of course, if we were to grade this match on in-ring action alone (like, if this same match took place on a random episode of RAW), then maybe it would get around 4.25 stars. But this crowd is/was legendary. They made so much noise and reacted exactly the way the wrestlers would’ve wanted, and then some. Highest recommendation possible.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.